After a long journey, a Chinese ship arrives on the shores of the Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa). At the port, envoys from the Qing dynasty alight and proceed to Shuri Castle, where they’re received with fanfare by Ryukyuan royals.

As a symbol of goodwill, the Ryukyuans present a small but luxurious gift for premodern dignitaries: thimble-sized cups of awamori, the island’s heady and intriguing indigenous liquor.

“The cups were so small because awamori was precious and therefore reserved for royalty,” says Koji Higa, manager of members-only speciality bar Awamori Souko. He pours the spirit into one of the dainty vessels. “These days, many people think of alcohol simply as a means to get drunk, but awamori is a spirit with a rich culture behind it. It is a symbol of pride for Okinawans.”