Awamori’s ancient Okinawan history
Created in Okinawa over 500 years ago, awamori is Japan’s oldest spirit. Made using a blend of Indica Thai rice and black koji fungus, the spirit is a testament to the strong trade links developed by the Ryukyu Kingdom, the unifiers of Okinawa island and namesake for Ryukyu awamori, with both the integral rice component and distillation process arriving from Thailand.
Okinawa’s warm climate is perfect for the brewing process, enabling the black koji fungus to work its magic before a single distillation reveals the final spirit: a clear liquid that, as you will discover, is perfect on the rocks.
For many years, the consumption of awamori was confined to Okinawa where locals have long revered the spirit. Today, its popularity has spread across Japan. Yet, many non-Japanese have never heard of this centuries-old spirit. However, things are changing, and with the growing popularity of shochu, a mainland Japanese twist on awamori now exported worldwide, the time is ripe for awamori to also enter the global market.
Awamori’s unique flavors and aromas
Awamori is a complex Japanese liquor with many flavor profiles to dissect. Perhaps the most striking is the sweet, caramel, or vanilla aroma that comes from the fermentation and aging process. The black koji used for fermentation is also responsible for the earthy matsutakeol aroma, which you find with Matsutake mushrooms.
Fruity flavors, like apples and bananas, are also present. However, unlike many other spirits, the sweetness is naturally occurring and doesn’t come from adding sugar. In awamori folklore, there is a famous explanation of the unique flavor profiles of awamori, by a Ryukyu-era baron. He described the taste and aroma of awamori in three categories: “male goat”, “ripened ground cherry” and “white plum.”
How best to enjoy awamori from the first sip
At around 40% alcohol, awamori is a strong spirit. Yet, when you take your first sip, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how quickly the powerful taste mellows, releasing the complex, sweet and earthy notes that make it so popular. Awamori experts will all agree that the best way to enjoy the drink is straight and on the rocks.
Cooling down the awamori over ice encourages the spirit to become smooth and silky, the same way a premium vodka does. Awamori on the rocks is refreshing and satisfying, allowing you to taste the spirit in its purest form.
However, some drinkers like to top up the straight awamori with water, creating a long drink you can enjoy with either lunch or dinner.
Awamori vs. whiskey
Many people compare a good awamori to a fine whisky with its esteemed heritage, sophisticated flavor profile, and refined mouth feel. In fact, many of the attributes that whisky drinkers enjoy, a smooth finish, sweet undertones, and earthy, often peaty aromas, is present in awamori too.
This begs the question, can you replace a good glass of whisky with an awamori at the end of the day? Absolutely! Try switching between the two for a bit of variation. While both high-alcohol spirits provide a satisfying end to a busy day, whisky drinkers will no doubt enjoy a taste that is both familiar and exotic in equal measure.