NAHA, Okinawa Pref. — It was almost a religious moment for “awamori” aficionados.

Workers spoke in hushed tones as the heady and sweet aroma of black yeast and Thai rice mash filled the room, and bystanders fidgeted in anticipation.

The verdict came from one white-haired man, crouching in front of a gauge where drops of the distilled liquor were collecting.

“A good aroma,” declared Seiton Sakumoto, 89, chairman of Zuisen Distillery Co., nodding vigorously. “It’s even better than I remember.”

It was an auspicious second beginning for prewar awamori, which disappeared from Okinawa when the black yeast used at the time was lost in the war. The war also claimed the life of Sakumoto’s mother, Nae Kyan, who had cultivated the yeast.

Awamori is a type of “shochu,” or distilled spirit, characteristic of Okinawa. It is made from cracked short-grain rice from Thailand and a black yeast unique to the island prefecture.

Located in Naha’s Shuri Sakiyama, steps away from Shuri Castle — the century-old center of the Ryukyu Kingdom — the Zuisen Distillery succeeded earlier this month in re-creating the prewar version of awamori using Kyan’s yeast, which was recently found preserved in a University of Tokyo lab.

About 1,000 liters of the rare drink was produced at this recent revival. After a minimum three-month aging period, the liquor is to be available for purchase by fall.

“I can’t wait,” said Takeshi Sakumoto, Seiton’s son and Zuisen’s president, who never knew his grandmother. “It means knowing what (sort of taste my grandmother) regarded as good awamori.”

While in other parts of Japan women were traditionally barred from sake-brewing rooms, in Okinawa it was common for them to be in charge of cultivating the yeast for awamori, he said.

With different home-grown yeast used in each distillery, the flavor of awamori before the war varied dramatically.

This wide variety attracted biologist Kinichiro Sakaguchi to the islands in 1935. Dubbed the University of Tokyo’s “sake professor,” he collected about 620 different yeast samples from 68 distilleries located around Shuri and Naha.

Then last June a local newspaper discovered that some of the samples — 19 types of black yeast from 14 distilleries — still existed in the university’s Cellular Biology Research Laboratory, a finding that spurred the Zuisen staff’s curiosity.

After the war, Zuisen and other distillers stopped cultivating their own yeast, instead contracting commercial cultivators to mix different kinds for awamori production. A combination made the awamori-distilling process easier, but also reduced the variety of flavors.

“What was the taste of our homemade drink before the war? I felt if there was any chance of knowing, I had to find out,” Takeshi Sakumoto said.

This quest meant slow cultivation of yeast and using prewar methods like steaming rice by hand. Workers at the distillery took shifts and kept a 24-hour vigil over the fermentation process.

“It was like we were possessed,” the younger Sakumoto said.

Reputed to get drinkers tipsy without hangovers, awamori was once offered as tribute from the Ryukyu kings to the Satsuma clan and the Tokugawa shogunate during the Edo Period. Production in those days was strictly supervised.

Indeed, it was to awamori’s misfortune that its production was traditionally permitted only in districts neighboring Shuri Castle, which were heavily bombed during the war. Many of the 40 awamori distilleries that served the Ryukyu royals burned down during the war, including Zuisen, Takeshi Sakumoto said.

Thus, though the liquor’s roots date to the early 15th century, when its ancestor, Laolong liquor, was imported from what is now Thailand, the oldest awamori in Zuisen’s subterranean warehouse is only 21 years old.

Nevertheless, the taste and scent of prewar awamori still lingers in Seiton Sakumoto’s memory.

“There was something soft about the sweetness when I tried this during my youth,” he said, with a faraway look in his eyes as he took a sip of the re-created awamori.

The drink will be named Usaki, using characters for “onsake,” or honorable sake.

“Awamori is a drink with history,” Takeshi Sakumoto said, seated in his office, an awamori cellar dating back to 1888 beneath his feet.

“I think something of my grandmother is here in this drink,” he mused. (M.N.)

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