The former kingdom Ryukyu—now known as Okinawa—is considered the “Japanese Hawaii” for its tropical climate, island culture, and independent spirit. To that end, it’s important to experience awamori, an iconic spirit tied to the land of Okinawa as mezcal is to the Mexican state of Oaxaca. To sip awamori in a local izakaya with a squeeze of shikuwasa (Okinawan citrus) poured from a kara-kara (clay bottle) is a toast to a people who consider themselves Okinawan first, then Japanese.
Like mezcal, awamori was once regarded as a second-rate beverage, after shochu, the Japanese spirit distilled variously from rice, barley, or sweet potatoes, among other products. Awamori was developed in the 15th century using distillation methods from the kingdom of Siam, using long grain Thai indica rice cooked with black koji mold prior to fermentation. But awamori now draws spirit connoisseurs for its complexity and bold flavors. The industry has rebounded from World War II and postwar reconstruction to its former glory. Today 47 distilleries turn out a range of awamori and have been restoring it to its status as a prized trade item from the kingdom of Ryukyu. Okinawa’s legendary spirit was sent as tribute to both China and Japan, influenced by trade with Southeast Asia. Today it’s a toast to long lives in Okinawa’s izakayas.
When in pursuit of experiencing the terroir of majestic elixirs—Islay for Scotch, Chassagne-Montrachet for Burgundy, Santiago Matatlán for mezcal—no stone may be left unturned. Awamori is having its turn in the global craft-cocktail movement, which has inspired creative bartenders at fine Okinawan watering holes, like the Bar and Chi-chi, to dig into local spirits. Impressive selections of awamori, koshu (awamori aged more than three years), habushu (pit viper awamori), hanazake (flower liqueur), flavor-infused awamori, and inventive cocktails bespeak the range of this little-known distillate. After a night of drinking in Okinawa’s upscale bars, you should get to know Ryukyu’s “water of life” at the 19th-century distiller Zuisen, located at the doorstep of Shujiro Castle, the former palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Zuisen says the key to its beverage’s purity is natural spring water. It has entry-level awamori— the Hakuryu awamori clocks in at 25.9 percent alcohol (51.8 proof)—but the headier pour, at 43 percent alcohol (86 proof), would be the Zuisen Couth.
Now that you’re initiated, it’s time to make some choices about how you’ll drink your awamori: mixed with water to exact proportions depending on proof, cut with hot water, on the rocks, or with a hard twist of the ubiquitous shikuwasa citrus. It runs contrary to instinct to adulterate your awamori, but all bets are off in a subtropical climate. The heat will blow out the subtle aromas of Ryukyu’s royal drink, leaving only hot, chemical and gassy alcohol flavors, as do most spirits under hot, humid conditions. If you’re going to cut it with water, it’s best to know your ratios, lest you dilute your awamori to the point of no return. If you head to the old-school izakaya Kozakura, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to customize your awamori approach with delicious bar snacks, like somen champuru (fried somen noodles), misobi (miso peanuts), buta mimi (pig’s ears) shima-doufu (island tofu) and kibinago (silver striped round herring).
Urizun is another izakaya where the awamori sweats from the pores of the dark wood panels. Pair your drink with sashimi, ika sumi yakisoba (squid ink yakisoba) and umi-budō (sea grapes). Done properly, awamori consumption should outpace food intake—you’re there for awamori first. The delicious regional bar food is merely a source of equilibrium. Your time in the izakayas will be well spent in pursuit of traditional Okinawan dishes, shaped by centuries of trade with Japan, China, and Southeast Asia, and of a modern awamori scene that’s alive with the ancient splendor of Ryukyu.
Okinawans swear the unique spirit is the key to their long lives and virility, and they exaggerate its potency. But without a kara-kara full of awamori on your table, you haven’t really been to Okinawa.