Awamori, the signature spirit of Okinawa, is often lumped together with shochu, the clear liquor produced in the rest of Japan. However, its production is significantly different and its history — like that of the islands themselves — is quite distinct.
Until the 17th century, the Ryukyu Kingdom was independent of Japan, and enjoyed a wide network of trading links with other Asian countries. The techniques for producing awamori were introduced from Siam (present-day Thailand) in the 15th century. Although the process underwent further refinements, to this day the base material for making the liquor is Thai long-grain rice.
The initial process is similar to the way sake is prepared. The rice is steamed, then inoculated with a particular type of koji spore that creates a black mold. Mixed with water, it is allowed to ferment, developing an alcohol content of around 17 percent. This mash is then distilled, producing liquor of up to 70 percent alcohol. It is the use of Thai long-grain rice and the special mold that gives awamori its distinctive characteristics.
Diluted to a strength of 25-60 percent alcohol, most awamori is then bottled for sale. However, a small amount is kept back to be aged in kame earthenware pots. Aged awamori, kusu in the Okinawan language, must by law be aged for no less than three years. To declare kusu of a specific age, it must contain at least 50 percent of awamori aged that number of years (the rest must also be kusu, but can be of a younger vintage).
In the past, the pots of kusu were stored in subterranean limestone caverns, where the temperature would remain constant year-round. Sometimes these would be aged for as long as 100 years. However, most of the distilleries and their storehouses were destroyed during World War II. Little of the premium, super-aged awamori survived.
Now, there are 48 distilleries scattered throughout Okinawa, many of which are producing kusu of increasing age and complexity. Several have also begun maturing the liquor in wooden barrels.
A good range of awamori can be found in many liquor shops in Tokyo. The best place to start looking is at the Ginza Washita Shop, the specialty Okinawa store in Yurakucho.
One of the largest selections is available at Sho-Chu Authority, which runs six stores, including two in the Tokyo region.
A comprehensive online resource on awamori also can be found at the following site produced by Okinawa Prefecture: www.wonder-okinawa.jp/027/eng/003/005/ index.html
Ginza Washita Shop, 1-3-9 Ginza, Chuo-ku; (03) 3535-6991; www.washita.co.jp/info/ shop/ginza/index.html. Nearest station: Yurakucho (JR and Yurakucho lines). Open daily 10:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.
Sho-Chu Authority, B2F Caretta Shiodome, 1-8-2 Higashi-Shinbashi, Minato-ku; (03) 5537-2105; www.authority-online.jp/ html/newpage.html?code=2 Nearest stations: Shiodome (Oedo Line), Shinbashi (JR, Asakusa & Ginza lines). Open daily 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Sho-Chu Authority, 1F Tokyo Station 1-9-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku; (03) 5208-5157. Nearest station: Tokyo (JR & Marunouchi lines), Open daily 10 a.m.-9 p.m.