All About Okinawa
Awamori

For something that's a little different, try Awamori, Okinawa's own liquor. It's a lot stronger and a tad smoother than the Japanese sake you may be used to, but Awamori still has a nice taste to it, all due to the careful distillation techniques used to make it.

Awamori starts as crushed rice (imported from Thailand - the only rice Japan allows for importation) that is carefully washed to remove the outer surface, then soaked in water. After soaking, the water is drained and the rice is steamed for about an hour. The temperature is lowered to about 40 degrees Celsius and black yeast, called koji, is added to the rice and left overnight in the steamer.

The next day this mixture is spread over triangle-shaped shelves to let the black yeast breed for another two days. This turns the starch in the rice into sugar, an important part of the liquor- making process.

Black yeast water is added to the mixture , then is left to ferment for about two weeks. This is called unrefined sake and is moved to a distiller container for two and half hours. The result is mellow Awamori, but it still has to mature before being bottled for sale to the public. So, it is stored in tanks for at least three years. Some awamori distilleries like to add a little something extra to certain batches, such as ginseng or a habu snake (this type is usually used as a dare to see who is brave enough to drink the habu awamori).

A Little Awamori History

Awamori is said to have been introduced to Okinawa during the 14th-15th centuries. The name itself is thought to have come from a member of the Satsuma clan, who wanted to distinguish this unique kind of sake from other types of shochu. Others believe the name comes from the word "awa," which means millet (used as an ingredient) or the Japanese character "awa" (meaning foam) and the word "mori" which means amount, the theory being that the amount of foam determined how much alcohol content was in a certain batch of awamori. Ninety percent of the Awamori made in those days was for use only by the king and his family. The king issued licenses to 30 people to produce the awamori and these positions became hereditary, so that the family was devoted to producing only awamori.

Today awamori is offered when guests come to visit, during celebrations, festivals, and other events throughout the year. When it comes to buying awamori, there are many kinds to choose from. If that doesn't make it hard enough to choose, they also come in variety of containers, from clay jars that sit in woven baskets to beautiful bottles that can be used afterwards as vases, and others are typical liquor bottles. There are also special edition containers made from hand- blown glass or have special etchings on them, or a bottle of it can be put in storage when a baby is born. A photo of the baby is put on the label and when the child reaches a certain age, usually 20, they are given the bottle on that birthday. Collecting all of the various types of Awamori and the beautiful jars, bottles, and vases it comes in will require space equivalent to small shed, just because of the endless varieties available.

If you do decide to try awamori, make sure it's room temperature or colder (unlike sake which is served hot), dilute it with water and ice cubes, or try this recipe: Mix orange and lemon juice with Awamori, the add touch of grenadine for a drink called Sunset. Kampai (Cheers)!