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Awamori-kan is an awamori lover's dream

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2009-09-04

Once you’ve experienced awamori, Okinawa’s distilled rice liquor, you’re hooked for life on a taste that far surpasses scotch, bourbons and blended whiskeys.

Once you’ve got to Awamori-kan and met Akiyoshi Miyagi, you’ll think you’ve gone to heaven. Miyagi is the owner of Awamori-kan, the Awamori Hall located in the heart of Naha City’s Shuri District, but that’s not exactly the real key. Awamori Hall is home to more than 1,000 different awamori, 200 different brands distilled by some 48 different awamori makers around Okinawa. And that fact brings us even closer to the real key.

Awamori-kan is a place where you can not only see awamori, but you can taste it, too. And here’s the real key: at Awamori-kan you can taste the really special awamori, the stuff that’s been aging for 20-30 years and more. A visit to Awamori-kan in Shuri, hometown of both the ancient castle city and awamori, is like going to an exhibition, a museum, a library and a unique shop all rolled into one.

Miyagi coined the Awamori Hall concept in 1995, opening the place as a way to showcase Okinawa’s many different awamori. He didn’t want it to be a dry, musty experience though, as many museums tend to be; Miyagi wanted his visitors to taste some of Okinawa’s most rare aged Awamori and become dyed in the wool believers. He’s an expert in both awamori and Ryukyu Kingdom history, and time passes quickly during a visit to Awamori Hall.

The history and culture of awamori is spellbinding in and of itself. The museum has books and picture panels too, with Uminokuni 77, an awamori distilled 40 years ago, King of Shuri made in 1892, Ryukyu King, and Chyuukou. Chyuukou is an awamori designed for long term storage and fermentation, and is already 20-30 years old, just ripe for a sip or two.

There’s awamori, and then there’s Kusu! Kusu is the awamori on its way to being even more special; to be classified Kusu an awamori must be at least three years of age. Distillers each have their own systems, some mixing 51% Kusu with 49% younger awamori, but there’s still some exquisite pure Kusu available.

Awamori made its debut in Okinawa as Thailand’s distilling techniques were refined to create awamori and other liquors centuries ago, during the Golden Age of Trade in the 14th to 18th centuries. It was a time of enlightenment for Okinawa, when the Ryukyu Islands became established as a trade hub between Asian nations. The Sanshin, a guitar-shape instrument originating in China, made its way to Okinawa, as did dyed fabrics called Kasuri from India and southeast Asia.

Awamori was a drink for the elite in the period 1404~1866, served only to royalty and the upper crust of society. That began changing in the late 1800’s and the general public began discovering what a great drink was right under their noses. Miyagi found it to be the drink for the ages, and set out to educate his fellow Okinawans.

Borrowing the money to open Awamori-kan as a museum, and to purchase 20,000 bottles of awamori to get started, he opened in August 1995. The first floor of his Awamori-kan in Shuri is an awamori sales section. Down the stairs, to the basement, and you’re in the cellar with its thousands of bottles of awamori, along with his collection of aged Kusu. Miyagi proudly notes his Awamori-kan is one of the very few places where a person can even get a taste of the Kusu.

Awamori-kan is located at 1-81 Samukawa cho, Shuri. It’s open 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily. To get there, drive south on Highway 58 from the bases toward the Tomari intersection. At the intersection, turn left and continue straight all the way through Asato intersection, which connects with Route 330. Shortly after, the road splits to the right; turn right and look for signs to Shurijo Castle Park. You’ll also see Awamori-kan signs on your left. One points directly to Awamori-kan, where you’ll turn left. Awamori-kan is then on your left. There is limited free parking in front of the building.

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