Okinawa’s most famous alcohol, next to habu-shu, is awamori. It is the oldest liquor in Japan, even pre-dating shochu. The method of making awamori was acquired through trade with Siam (modern-day Thailand) and has supposedly been the same over the last six centuries.
How awamori is made
First, Thai Indica rice is soaked, then black koji mold is added. This type of mold makes awamori unique as it produces a lot of citric acids, which also helps keep the awamori from going bad due to bacteria produced during the fermentation process.
Black koji mold is ideal for making awamori because it is resistant to humidity and high temperatures. Thai Indica rice is preferred because it is more receptive to black koji compared to Japanese rice.
After fermentation, the mixture goes through a distillation process. Awamori is said to get its name from its appearance during the distillation process. In Japanese, ‘awa’ means bubbles and ‘mori’ means to rise or swell.
Following distillation, awamori is stored in large clay pots and can be kept for long periods of time. A process Okinawans call “letting it sleep” or aging, allows the flavors of the awamori to develop. The flavors and mellowness improve the longer the awamori ages. Awamori that has been aged for three years or longer is called ‘kusu’. It is possible to let awamori age for more than 100 years, however, such kusu is no longer found these days as most were lost during World War II.
Awamori alcohol content
Awamori is labeled as a spirit because of its high alcohol content, typically ranging from 60-86 proof or 30-40% by volume. In a similar fashion to sake and shochu, awamori is sold in large liter bottles to half of that size. It is generally inexpensive but awamori that has been aged for quite some time is more valuable.
How to enjoy awamori
There are 47 distillaries in Okinawa and you can order awamori at almost any izakaya there. It is typically served with a pitcher of water and a bucket of ice. It’s highly recommended to dilute the awamori as it is very strong but some people are known to enjoy awamori straight. Awamori is also used in making rafute (Okinawan braised pork belly).
Different Types of Awamori
As previously mentioned, kusu is alcohol that has been aged for three or more years. The rest of Japan uses the word ‘koshu’ but both words mean ‘old sake’. Japanese law says that spirits must be at least three years old, however, awamori makers have been known to mix older alcohols with newer ones to preserve stock.
Otherwise known as snake sake, habu-shu is sold everywhere in Okinawa, most notably in omiyage (souvenir) shops. Habu or pit vipers are killed with a variety of methods but will end up in a bottle of awamori at some point with herbs and honey for a dramatic-looking drink.
The island of Yonaguni, Okinawa’s western-most island, produces a type of awamori called ‘hanazake’ literally translating to ‘flower sake’. Hanazake is incredibly strong with an alcohol content of 60% and is supposed to be drunk straight. It used to only be used for religious ceremonies but one or two daredevils out there enjoy it for pleasure.
Japan is quite popular for flavored alcohol and awamori is no different. Most flavored-infused awamori include tropical fruit blends like passionfruit or mango. Some people have been known to add awamori to their morning coffee so now a ready-made coffee-flavored awamori has also been produced.
Kōrēgusu (hot sauce)
This type of hot sauce can be found at most Okinawan supermarkets and restaurants, especially Okinawa soba shops. Shima togarashi (Okinawa chili peppers) are picked, washed, and then soaked in awamori for ten days. While it is a manufactured product, it is often homemade. Unlike regular chili sauce, the taste of kōrēgusu contains both heats from the chilis and awamori, providing a big depth of flavor. Drivers are cautioned to use sparingly as the awamori content is enough to show up on a breathalyzer test!
Try our regional, convenient to use awamori chili paste.
About the author:
Samantha is currently a 5th-year JET in Okinawa, originally from Hawaii. She has been somewhat connected to Japanese culture her whole life despite being Chinese American. She's had the privilege of traveling to Japan and experiencing Japanese culture at a young age. She loves food and is always looking to try new places. When she is not working or out eating, she is an avid baker at home and has been known to feed her colleagues an excessive amount of baked goods.