Awamori is a traditional alcoholic beverage from archipelago of Okinawa. It is produced from fermented, then distilled long rice, and contains 30 to 60% alcohol. Awamori appeared in this region about 600 years ago when the stills from middle east arrived in Asia.
Production techniques are largely inspired by Taiwan's existing methods. It is believed that distillation techniques traveled from Okinawa to the rest of Japan, giving birth to shochu in Kyushu island.
To produce Awamori, long rice (indica type) is used, unlike sake for which round rice is necessary (japonica rice). This rice is grown in Thailand. It is symbolical of the historical exchanges between these two regions of southern Asia. The production of awamori requires two main steps, fermentation of rice, then distillation.
1. Preparation of rice with koji
Rice is stripped of its cuticle, washed, and then steamed. It is then inoculated with the fungus Koji, according to the same principle as the one used for the production of sake. This step lasts 2 to 3 days.
The peculiarity in the case of awamori is that all the rice is seeded with koji. This is what producers call "Zen Oji zukuru", in opposition to the production of sake where only 20% of rice receives koji.
Koji Awamori: The type of Koji used for production of Awamori is a "black koji" or "Kuro Koji" in Japanese. This strain was discovered in Okinawa and its scientific name, Aspergylus awamori, is directly related with its origins. This Koji is particularly resistant to high temperatures and humid environment, and this is the reason why its use has been developed in this archipelago of tropical climate. The Koji awamori would have given birth to the Koji used in the production of Shochu, in Kyushu. It converts the macromolecules of starch contained in the rice into simple sugars. This step is very important because the starch cannot ferment into alcohol under the action of yeast. (for details, refer to the section describing the production of sake).
2. Rice fermentation
The rice + koji mix will then receive the yeasts used to ferment simple sugars into alcohol. The koji is always present, and because of simultaneous work of koji and yeasts (and knowing that all the rice is seeded with koji), fermentable sugars are always available. This results in an extremely efficient fermentation, bringing the alcohol content over 20% with a single fermentation! The efficiency of fermentation is also at the origin of the name Awamori, which means "big bubbles" in Japanese, regarding to those observed during this phase of the process.
The distillation takes place in a traditional still, heated directly by a flame supplied with oxygen, thanks to large fans. The moromi is distilled once, and the result is 70% alcohol in about 4 hours. The final product is reduced with water to around 30%, except for a particular product called Hanazake that is around 60%.
Final product is adjusted with spring water in order to bring the alcohol content to 30~35%. The awamori will age in vats, and then in earthen jars called "kame". The aging process lasts at least three years; the product obtained is called "Ku-su". Aging is a long tradition in Okinawa, and is done to enhance the flavors. Awamori becomes rounder, giving a softer texture to the final product.
Traditionally, awamori is nice to be enjoyed straight, with ice, and sometimes with the addition of a little bit of water. It is part of the Okinawa culinary culture. It accompanies particularly well with the rustic cuisine of Ryukyu (the former name of this region), such as tuna or swordfish, black pork (which is a specialty of the region), raw vegetables such as goya, and seaweed.
Awamori may be served as a digestif for stronger versions. It is also used as a base for very original cocktails.
Here are some cocktails discovered at Summer Glass in Ishigaki, a bar specializing in cocktails based on awamori.
During World War II, the Battle of Okinawa, called "Operation Iceberg", was the biggest battle of the Pacific campaign and lasted from March to June 1945. For US forces, Okinawa was the last step before the invasion of main islands of Japan.
Bombings were intense and some villages were completely destroyed. It is said that a huge stock of jars containing awamori over 400 years old were destroyed. This awamori dated from a time when Okinawa was not part of Japan, but formed, with the surrounding islands, the Ryukyu Kingdom.
Hanazake is a version of awamori which contains 60% alcohol (not reduced by addition of water). Its origin comes from Taiwan where "Corian" is produced, a kind of liquor believed to have strong pharmaceutical value. Only the island of Yonaguni is allowed to produce this Hanazake, since a hundred years, when trade multiplied between Taiwan (then occupied by the Japanese army) and Yonagui.
The hanazake is strongly linked to funeral celebrations. Indeed, in Yonaguni Island, bodies are not cremated, but placed in a coffin with two jars of Hanazake. The coffin is placed in monumental tombs carved into rocks, next to the sea.
Seven years later, on the anniversary date of the death, bodies taken out of their coffins; only the bones remain. It's time for relatives to meet, open one of the jars of preserved Hanazake, and use its contents to clean bones. This being done, the rest of the bottle is used to start incineration of the remains. The second bottle of Hanazake is drunk by men taking part to the tribute in memory of the deceased. Women, who do not drink, use few drops of this beverage to cure their skin injuries.