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Sample Awamori and See How It’s Made

By: Stephen Carr

Date Posted: 2001-02-23

One of Okinawa’s most famous products is its hard liquor, awamori. Distilled from rice, considerably more potent than sake, and less sweet, it is not found on the mainland. Some varieties made offshore of Okinawa main island have the highest alcoholic content. But the drink which seems suited to a sub-tropical climate, generally has a benign reputation. Suffering a hangover is said not to be one of the penalties for enjoying it.

Awamori has a venerable history going back 500 years, when the Ryukyu Kingdom had extensive trade with Southeast Asia. It was first introduced to the islands from the area that is now Thailand. Awamori is still made from Thai rice because its long grains give a higher alcoholic yield and it is not as sticky as Japanese rice. Distilling methods have not changed down the centuries. Also known as Ryukyu Shochu, it influenced the way Kyushu shochu (often made from sweet potatoes) was distilled.

Awamori is most commonly drunk on the rocks with water, though there are many other ways to try it. It can be enjoyed straight or while taking sips from a glass of ice cold water. It can also be savored when mixed with hot water or made into any number of cocktails. Green peppermint and ice chips is a popular addition, so is plain soda water or any carbonated soft drink. Another possibility is to drink it with sliced lemon or green lime. Awamori is also sometimes chilled into an eggnog mixture.

Anyone interested in finding out exactly how awamori is made, as well as discovering its history and sampling some varieties could visit the Masahiro Awamori Gallery, part of the Higa Sake Factory in Itoman. There are free guided tours in Japanese around the gallery and part of the factory.

First stop is a shrine-like wooden cage full of bottles and huge earthenware jars with cloth covered tops. Some of these jars, made in Thailand, are five hundred years old. Their capacity is equal to 250 magnum sized bottles and they contain what will one day be high priced vintage liquor. Filled four years ago, they will be kept for 96 years more. The longer awamori is kept, the smoother it becomes. It also reacts with the insides of the jars, much as wine or whisky is affected by the barrels in which it is stored. The 100 year old awamori, when opened in 2197, will be super-smooth, have a slightly brown tincture and no doubt priced in millions of yen.

Two main products come out of the Higa factory’s stills: awamori and honkaku shochu. They are distinguished by what is added before distillation. Awamori is made using black aspergillus and honkaku shochu needs white aspergillus. Otherwise the process is exactly the same. The rice is washed and steamed and yeast added. In 40-50 hours the mold appears. Alcoholic fermentation has started and unrefined liquor formed. Then water and the main ingredients are added which will determine the its final taste. These can be sweet potato, rice, barley, buckwheat or other things. Fermentation continues for 10 to 15 days. The liquid is then passed through a distillation tank and cooled. The first liquid that bubbles through is called hanazake or “flower sake” which is 70 percent proof. The last of the liquid is only about 10 percent proof. The desired final strength is achieved by mixing different amounts of varying strengths.

Ushering you up some stairs, your guide shows you the raw ingredients and time honoured utensils for concocting the beverage. There are three wooden trays of rice, one white, another light gray and the third dark gray, showing how the different yeasts affect the rice. Blow-ups of single rice grains from each tray show a naked white rice grain, one discolored by a little mold and one covered by a dark, tangled excrescence.

There are wooden shovels, rice matting, an enormous jar full of gray rice and two big bamboo stirring poles. Containers which have been used for awamori are shown in all sorts of shapes, sizes and materials. There are brass buckets and bottles, gourds, jerry cans and other vessels of glass and wood. On display are also small iron stills an ancient bottle topper and a vast collection of bottles.

The collection, assembled and donated by businessman Soutoku Zamami, shows something of the social history of Okinawa. You see that a few decades ago Okinawa was too poor to produce all the bottles it needed. So awamori was put into recycled soft drink, beer, gin, whisky and Worcester sauce bottles. The bottles on display are not empty and except for the ones with damaged tops and half evaporated contents, could be drunk today. (The aspergillus yeast makes citric acid, which protects against bacteria and keeps the drink fresh in a hot climate).

Until thirty or forty years ago about 100 companies made awamori and examples of their label art abound in the gallery. One famous label, also made into a poster, appeared in 1933. Featuring a woman in traditional dress holding a bottle, it was decided that the kimono she was wearing was too diaphanous and the label was withdrawn the following year.

Today 47 companies make awamori and the latest label oddity, also on display at the gallery, is special G-8 Summit awamori, featuring caricatures of the world leaders who attended the event. The label had to be redesigned four times because of government reshuffles involving Russian, Japanese and Italian politicians.

Other exhibits include small ceramic shochu flasks which used to be taken to bullfights slung from the shoulders and huge china containers with family seals, used at wedding feasts. There are 300 year old jars still full of liquor.

Stepping into the distilling area is to be engulfed by a delicious aroma reminiscent of rice wine. Gleaming metal tanks as high as a house store the stuff. The liquor can be seen bubbling out of a vat into an overflowing metal cup containing a thermometer in a lantern sized glass chamber. You can also see an assembly line, bottling, capping and boxing the end product.

The final part of the tour is tasting four types of awamori aged three, five, seven and ten years, of different proofs – between 28 and 43 percent – and various flavors and smoothness.

Directions: From Naha take Route 331 southwards. Turn right at Awane intersection. Follow the curve around to the left and Higa Sake Factory is on the right in a large parking lot.

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