A Guide to Awamori
Awamori is a type of distilled rice liqueur which originates from the Okinawa Islands in southern Japan. It’s been produced here for the last 600 years when the islands were still independent of Japan and known as the Ryukyu Kingdom. Back then, it was mostly consumed by royalty; therefore, the Ryukyu King would regularly send aged awamori as tribute gifts to the rulers of Japan and China. In this awamori guide, we will learn how its made, how to drink it, and find out more about the various types.
- How to drink awamori
- How it’s made
- International popularity
- Different types of awamori
- Habushu (Snake wine)
- Hanazake (Flower sake)
- Kusu (Old liqueur)
In this video, you will see how Okinawan distilleries store their awamori in limestone caves for aging. Interestingly, many private individuals also keep their bottles in these same caves in commemoration of weddings and births. The video is owned and created by Local Topics Japan.
How to drink awamori
Awamori is surprisingly easy to drink despite its high alcohol content. Also, one is less likely to experience a hangover because it’s distilled and contains very few impurities. Want more good news? It pairs perfectly with any food, whether Japanese or Western cuisine. There are many different ways one can enjoy this drink.
If you ever get the chance to visit Okinawa and order awamori in a restaurant, it will be served as a set similar to the picture above. The set comes with a bucket of ice and a jug of water so that you can dilute it to your liking.
It can also be enjoyed as a cocktail, with a tonic, orange juice, or even with special coffee-flavored milk. The options are almost endless, but the traditional way to drink awamori is clean or on the rocks.
How it’s made
The main ingredient is long grain indica rice, which is imported from Thailand. Indica is preferred over Japonica rice, which is more commonly used in sake production because it’s less sticky and yields a higher alcohol percentage.
In the first step of awamori production, indica rice gets soaked in water before being steamed. Afterward, black koji mold gets mixed in with the rice. This particular mold triggers the production of citric acid, which acts as a purifier. This is followed by a fermentation process where water and yeast are added, which turns the rice into a type of mash, known as moromi. The mash mixture gets transferred to a still when fermentation is complete. The still gets heated through fire until the moromi becomes liquidized and then moved to a tank where it gets stored for a certain period to mature.
The rise to international popularity
As recently as a few years ago, if you wanted to sample this drink, you would have to get on a plane and travel to Okinawa. Nowadays, obtaining a bottle in the US, Europe, or even other parts of Asia is becoming increasingly easier thanks to its growing international popularity. It’s also found its way onto many restaurant menus in many parts of the world.
At this stage, the variety of awamori brands are still extremely limited in the West but expect this to change in the next few years.
The different types of awamori
There are somewhere around 46 awamori distilleries scattered across the Okinawa Islands, who produce hundreds of varieties. Below we will list the three most popular and well-known types.
Habushu (Snake wine)
Habushu is probably one of the strangest and most unique drinks in the world. The yellow-colored liquid consists of awamori mixed with honey and herbs – and then the main ingredient, the venomous habushu snake. Don’t worry; it’s safe to drink because the high alcohol content neutralizes the venom. Read more about Okinawan snake wine.
Hanazake (Flower sake)
Hanazake originates from Yonaguni Island, Okinawa. This particular variety is one of the more expensive types and generally has an above-average alcohol percentage. It was initially intended to be consumed during Ryukyu religious ceremonies, and tradition calls for it to be enjoyed clean, despite its strong alcohol content.
Kusu (Old liqueur)
Just like wine, awamori improves with age and needs to be stored for a minimum of 3 years before it gets classified as kusu. The ideal way to age it is by storing it underground in clay containers where the temperatures are consistently cool. Sadly, during the battle of Okinawa, countless such containers holding centuries-old awamori were destroyed.
Also, kusu is very valuable, and it’s therefore common practice to mix it with newer awamori at a 50% ratio to preserve the older and more expensive stock.