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Awamori-kan, sells rare, vintage Kusu

By: David Knickerbocker

Date Posted: 2002-08-31

For centuries, Awamori, a local Okinawan liquor distilled from rice, has retained its place as the liquor most favored by Okinawans for all occasions. You’ll find it everywhere, from restaurants to izakayas, bars to clubs, and even in many Okinawan homes. It is a drink with legacy, brewed using traditional Ryukyuan techniques. On my last outing, I visited Awamori-kan, literally “The House of Awamori” in Shuri. I had heard that this shop housed every kind of Awamori sold on Okinawa, but I had to see it with my own eyes. What I found upon entering the shop was an Awamori lover’s dream come true. A shop filled to the brim with bottles of every type of Awamori known to man as well as fine aged Kusu in giant unglazed earthenware pots.

Awamori-kan was opened in 1995 to serve more-or-less as a museum showcasing Okinawa’s Awamori. However, where at most museums you can only look at what is on display, here you can taste some of Okinawa’s most rare aged Awamori in the tasting room. In the past, I had only tried the more popular brands of Awamori, none of them aged more than a year. However, in Awamori-kan, there are bottles on display with aged Awamori as old as 25 years old. At the tasting room, I was able to taste the finest Okinawan Awamori I have ever had. I was served in a small tasting cup, but each small sip was overwhelming for the palette.

Aged Awamori is known as Kusu. To be classified as Kusu, Awamori must age more than three years. If a brand of Awamori has a mixture of over 50% Kusu in it’s container, it can be designated as Kusu, so one brand may have a mixture of 51% Kusu and 49% modern awamori and still be classified as Kusu. However, 100% 25 year old Kusu is extremely rare and can only be found in few select areas, one of which is Awamori-kan in Shuri.

Over the years, Awamori has become renowned worldwide partly because of the charm of aged Awamori. In fact, Kusu, aged close to 300 years old once existed, handed down by the Ryukyuan royal family. However, tragically, none of this fine liquor survived the Battle of Okinawa.

Owner Akiyoshi Miyagi began working on Awamori-kan close to two decades ago when he took out a huge loan to build a museum dedicated to Awamori. He then purchased 20,000 bottles of Kusu throughout Okinawa, and in August 1995 he opened his doors for business. If you walk into the store, you’ll find that the first floor serves as more or less a souvenir shop with various books, t-shirts, and assorted bottles of Awamori. A few steps down stairs and you’ll reach a cellar housing thousands of bottles of Awamori as well as fine aged Kusu. Awamori-kan stored large quantities of Awamori distilled from 1977 to 1982 which has now matured into fine aged Kusu. Today, few besides Awamori-kan can offer Awamori of this vintage.

Awamori first came into existence on Okinawa when the distilling techniques of Thailand were refined to create Awamori and other liquors in Okinawa during the Golden Age of Trade. This age of trade occurred on Okinawa from the 14th through the 16th centuries when the Ryukyu Islands established itself as a trading link between Asian countries. This age of trade enhanced not only the economic health of the island but also life as well. Many aspects of other cultures were integrated into Okinawan living and culture. For instance, the Sanshin, a guitar shaped instrument originating in China, is now closely related to Okinawan culture. Also, a dyed fabric called Kasuri, came to the Ryukyus through India and Southeast Asia. The distilling processes of Awamori were also learned during this time.

Today, anyone can try Awamori. However, in the past, this drink was reserved for high society alone. Between 1404 and 1866, Chinese investiture delegates were sent from the courts of ancient China to oversee the enthronement of the King at Shuri. Often staying for up to a year, these delegates were served the finest Awamori because of their importance. Awamori also played a vital role in Ryukyuan diplomacy. Between 1634 and 1850, the Ryukyus were taxed to send a tribute delegation to Edo. These delegates were required to bring various offerings. Among these was always Awamori.

If you want a true taste of Okinawa’s rich culture and heritage, you can do so at Awamori-kan. Awamori has a long history and will likely be the favored drink of the Okinawans for years upon years to come. For more information on the history of Awamori and about Awamori-kan, check out their English or Japanese website at www.awamori.co.jp. To get to Awamori-kan, drive south on Highway 58 towards the Tomari intersection. At the intersection, turn left and keep straight for quite a while. Continue straight through the Asato intersection which meets with route 330. A short while ahead, this road will split to the right. Turn right here. Ahead, you’ll see signs pointing to the Shurijo Castle Park, and you’ll also see Awamori-kan signs on your left side. One sign will point directly to Awamori-kan. Turn left here and Awamori-kan will be on your left.

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