“The composition of the clay in the pot has a huge effect on the flavor of the awamori,” says Paul Lorimer, holding forth with enthusiasm about Okinawa’s unique distilled rice liquor, which is aged in clay pots. Lorimer is a ceramic artist living in Nanjo, Okinawa.
Discussing storage and aging, he goes on, “It’s pretty amazing, actually, that the awamori might develop a very pleasing aroma but still not taste very good. Or vice versa, it might taste fine but lack aroma — all because of differences in the clay. For example, clays from southern Okinawa contain more calcium, which makes them highly suitable for ceramics work, but if used for awamori jars, they tend to instill a metallic flavor. So I prefer clays from the north, which are better for bringing out the sweetness.”
Lorimer originally hails from New Zealand. Having always been fond of making things with his hands, he apprenticed himself to well-known local potter Barry Brickell at the age of 19. But Lorimer also loved the ocean and traveling, so he took time off from the pottery workshop to crew on sailboats and visit other countries. Eventually, his interest in Ko-Bizen (Old Bizen) pottery led to an extended stay in Japan so he could study ceramics in Okayama. His memories of tropical seas beckoned, and he visited Okinawa 3½ years later on what he intended to be just a short bicycle tour of Ishigaki Island.
“I had my first encounter with awamori on Ishigaki, and, in a far cry from now, I remember flinching at how awful it tasted.” But he fell in love with the place and moved there to set up his own pottery workshop and kiln.
His serious experiments with awamori began about 10 years ago, after he had moved from Ishigaki to an old house on the main island of Okinawa. “I happened to do a tasting of liquor that came from the same batch but had been aging for about three years in two different pots,” he says. “It was the same awamori, kept under identical conditions, and yet the samples tasted completely different. I realized the only distinction was the clay that had been used in the two pots. Nobody had ever pointed out anything like that before.”
Ever since, he’s been absorbed in a fascinating study of clays and awamori. How does the composition of the clay dug up from one place or another influence the character of the liquor stored in it? Which chemical elements are responsible for affecting flavor and aroma? How long is it best to age the liquor? Even the venerable awamori maker Sakiyama Shuzo has taken a close interest in Lorimer’s work: A delegation led by the president of the company comes each year to taste samples. “It gives us a chance to compare notes in our search for the best-tasting awamori,” says Lorimer.
Awamori is a remarkable substance. Unlike other distilled spirits, which continue to mature as long as they are in the barrel but stop aging once they’ve been bottled, the liquor keeps maturing even in the bottle. Instead of depending on the barrel to enhance the flavor as with whiskey, reactions among the chemical components of the awamori itself continue to have a mellowing effect, and both aroma and flavor blossom further.
“But if you store it in clay jars, it ages three times as fast,” says Lorimer. The knowledge that awamori improves with age gave rise to the custom of making kusu — literally, “old liquor” — more than five centuries ago. “Awamori that’s been aged for three years or more is called kusu,” Lorimer explains, “and that really does seem to be the dividing line when the flavor becomes notably richer.”
According to research findings Lorimer has obtained from elsewhere, the calcium and magnesium in the clay are the first to have an effect. Then, after about two years, the iron kicks in to bring out a sweetness. Still later, the manganese comes into play and enhances the aroma.
“At this point, some 60 to 70 percent of my overall output is pots for aging kusu,” Lorimer says. Asked to prepare and present sample appetizers that would go well with awamori on serving dishes of his own creation, he deftly sliced up some fish, then popped outside to pick some herbs and vegetables. From a garden of great variety, he returned with bitter greens, chōmeisō (“long-life plant”), Japanese yams, Okinawan handama spinach and cilantro.
“I don’t know if I owe it to the awamori or to the herbs, but since coming to Okinawa, I’ve never had to take any medicine,” Lorimer marvels. “I’ve been thinking I would like to translate a book on the herbs of Yaeyama and have it published one of these days.”
With multiple interests in things Okinawan to occupy him alongside his ceramics pursuits, Lorimer seems to have become even more of an Uchinanchu, as Okinawans call themselves, than many of the islands’ native residents.
The Paul Lorimer Gallery: Shinzato 1074, Motobucho, Kunigami-gun, Okinawa 905-0208; 0980-43-0066. This is the final part in a series about contemporary craftspeople in Okinawa.