If you’re visiting Okinawa, leave some room in your schedule for an Awamori island sake tasting day. Trust me, you don’t want to miss out.
Unfortunately, as excellent as Awamori island sake is going to seem in this piece, it isn’t popular in Japan. (The regular) Sake is what seems to take precedence and is considered Japan’s prodigious and pride-worthy alcoholic drink.
What is Awamori Island Sake?
Awamori Island Sake is the oldest alcoholic drink of Japan that is distilled and is believed to be the predecessor of shochu. Thai rice that is also called Indica is malted to become koji and then fermented with the addition of yeast and water undergoing a single distillation to complete awamori.
Where in reality, Awamori island sake is at least about 600 years old, winning hearts, closing deals and restoring friendships amongst the Japanese. It isn’t popular all across Japan and is produced solely in Okinawa.
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In fact, 80% of its consumption also is amongst the Okinawans alone.
The stark difference between the regular Japanese Sake and Awamori Island Sake is that the former is made from directly brewing rice, whereas awamori is a result of the distillation of a dollop of mashed and fermented rice.
If you’ve ever had a sip of Awamori Island Sake, you’ll know it’s worth all the hype. If you ever get the chance to drink the Awamori Island Sake, grab it. Here are a few reasons why —
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Awamori Island Sake
The history of Awamori
It’s sad how little is known of this awamori island sake. It has a rich history that dates back to World War II, involves upturning the earth and savouring every last drop till one’s breath allows.
Originally, awamori came to Okinawa from Thailand and has maintained the status of the official liquor of the prefecture since the reign of the Ryukyu kingdom back in the period of 1429 to 1879.
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The technique of making awamori, as well as the main, magical ingredient that is needed to make it came from Siam (now called Thailand) during the Ryukyu period. The main ingredient being the black koji mold.
The Siamese sent the ingredients and the methods here because the process and the survival of the koji mold were better suited to the Ryukyu climate.
Now, the availability of grain and even production for that matter was very low during the Ryukyu era. Awamori price is also reasonable so don’t worry, buy awamori and store it to drink.
No wonder, making awamori and even consuming it was considered a very valuable thing. The production was limited to only three villages around the main castle.
After their fall and the uprise of the Meji, the awamori masters moved away and started their own distilleries, sharing the craft of awamori making and proliferating the tradition and now treasured tradition of the beloved alcohol.
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After the Ryukyuan Kings fell and the Meji era began, the awamori island sake masters took it upon themselves to move away and start their own distilleries. There are now 47 distilleries in the prefecture.
The struggle of the survival of this drink has seen a long way. During WWII, amidst the battle of Okinawa, all the distilleries that made awamori island sake were wiped out.
Only one survived: the Tsukayama Distillery, but even that was seized by the U.S. troops. The distillery was finally returned to the family who owned it after the war.
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During the time of the battle, awamori prevailed, but only in hidden bottles in the caves.
At the end of the war, the locals of Okinawa got down on their hands and knees onto the burnt ruins of the war to dig out the remains of black rice mold in order to preserve their cultural heritage, the sinful awamori island sake.
The name awamori island sake comes from the bubbles (awa) that are formed when the rice is fermented (mori) and then it swells and rises.
The mixture is typically left to be matured in clay pots, now also found in steel and oak barrels, to ensure it has a distinct flavour that is mellow, in contrast to the high alcoholic content it has.
The longer it is left to be fermented, the stronger it is and the more expensive as well. Awamori island sake even has a Geographical Indication (GI) tag and is recognized by the government of Ryukyu.
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How to drink Awamori 101
There are many ways to drink the best awamori, each style having a distinct effect of its own. If you ever order some awamori island sake anywhere, be prepared to be received with a carafe of water or a bucket of ice along with it.
Because of its high alcohol content, some people prefer to simmer it down with a bit of water, ice or even have it as a warm drink along with hot water (oyuwari). There’s 30-40 per cent of alcohol in awamori.
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But traditionally, the drink was served in something called kara-kara, a tiny earthenware bowl, almost pot-like, that had a marble inside. The marble would rattle inside the kara kara when it got empty.
Either this was a tactic to keep the drinkers drinking or it was a way to alter the servers to top it off again. Either way, it sounds fun. You can also try awamori cocktails as it’s a special sake that goes well with everything.
This is one of the drinks that literally brings people closer together. Why I emphasize on literally is because people would have to come really close to each other to clink and cheers or toast to someone.
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The tiny size of the sake cups fitted between two fingertips. Drinking tiny sips at once encouraged long conversations and tighter bonds.
This is in contrast to the beer bottles and wine glasses that have a certain length to the size of the bottle or the stem of the glass. Besides, they are mellow drinks. “Amateurs, huh?”, the Okinawans must be thinking.
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Types of Awamori Island Sake
Kusu / Koshu
To be labelled as kusu, the awamori needs to be aged for at least three years. In fact, only 3+ year-old awamori can be bottled up, according to the Japanese law.
Considering its popularity across Okinawa, some of the producers mix aged awamori with a new batch to maintain stock.
Popularly known as snake wine, this is an awamori based liquor that is the embodied version of ‘if looks could kill you’. Habushu is made by soaking pit vipers in a concoction of herbs, honey and awamori island sake.
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Before the snake is put in the awamori, it is soaked in ethanol for about a month. Making this yellow-hued drink is quite the task. It is also known for its medicinal and libido-increasing properties.
Hanazake literally translates into flower sake. It might be the strongest sake of them all. Containing 60% alcohol, hanazake is made only in 3 of the 47 distilleries in all of Japan.
Traditionally, people only drank it during religious ceremonies, but now people also drink it when they’re socializing and feeling exceptionally brave.
Koregusu (Hot Sauce)
Here’s an interesting one. This kind of awamori is usually homemade because all you need to do is buy some koregusu (red hot chillies)off of the supermarket and let it soak in your awamori for about 10 days.
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Often, people don’t drink it but use it as a condiment or ingredient in their food to add a rich spicy flavour.
This type particularly appeals to the newer generation. Flavours that suit their taste buds serve as more enjoyable drinks. Keeping that in mind, the producers started making special flavours of awamori island sake.
Some are plum flavoured, some are infused with coffee milk and then there are other fruit flavours as well.
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Transformed into Various Drink: Extremely Versatile
You’ve already seen the extent of the versatility of awamori. Honestly, you can do much more with it.
Drinking it straight, on the rocks or diluted with water may not be the best way for everyone. This flexile drink simply calls for and gives room for experimentation.
You can make brilliant, mouth-watering cocktails. Its high alcohol content and strong flavours allow for it to be on par with other alcohol like vodka or gin.
Consuming it as sangria seems to be the most favoured way of drinking awamori island sake these days.
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Topping it off with freshly cut berries, citruses and mint and letting it sit for about two days really brings out the flavour. The decoction can be mixed with soda or water or had on the rocks.
For a traditional Okinawan flavour, the awamori island sake is to be had with blue curaçao, fruit liqueur and pineapple juice.
This fancy mixture is labelled as the Southern island Okinawa. If you like the way it sounds, just head into any Okinawan eatery restaurant and order one of these!
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Low Calorie and Sugar: Guilt-Free Drink
The sound of awamori is bringing me close to drool now. But I’m not worried about liking it too much because it’s practically harmless.
Awamori island sake is completely sugar-free and even free of protein because of its distilled nature. When you mix it with water, it is 40 calories less than what you’d consume with a small peg of brandy.
If fact, forget about being unhealthy, it actually has health benefits. Controlled consumption of awamori aids in the prevention of strokes and blood circulation related conditions.
The awamori island sake has a fibrinolytic enzyme that helps in regulating blood circulation in the body. No wonder it is called Okinawa’s diet drink
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Pairing Awamori with Food
Here, I am not only talking about it as a drink to pair with your food but as an actual ingredient that goes into preparing an exotic dish. It could add a certain rich, exclusive flavour to your pasta or sausage upon being cooked with awamori island sake.
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This Okinawan wonder has a certain malleability to it that automatically adjusts itself to the dish you’re adding it to, and in fact, brings out the flavours even more.
Cheers your Awamori Island drink with friends and fam on the best occasion and have an authentic taste of Japan!
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