Think of Japan and the first few spirits to come to mind are its increasingly expensive whiskies, as well as sake. This is especially so with Japanese whisky distilleries earning acclaimed international awards at numerous competitions. Whisky, however, was not always the lead spirit in the story of Japanese alcohol. It is awamori that deserves that accolade.

Unique to Okinawa, awamori is a spirit made from long grain indica rice from Thailand. Its history dates back to the 15th-century when Okinawa was still known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, and not a part of Japan.

The Ryukyu islanders combined the imported rice with a local black koji mould to produce awamori.

what is awamori
A bartender pouring awamori. (Photo credit: Nicholas Koo)

To make awamori, Thai rice is washed and steamed, before being sprinkled with black koji. The rice sits with the mould for two days before yeast and water are added to start the two-week fermentation process. The main mixture is then distilled in a pot still to produce awamori.

Additionally, some batches of awamori are aged after distillation. After three years of ageing, the result is a more premium spirit called kusu, which is highly sought after.

Mr Kenji Shinzato, 60, is the owner of Okinawa’s oldest distillery and the seventh generation of Shinzatos to manage the family business.

“It was second nature for me, given that I always grew up watching my father, being around the distillery and seeing him make alcohol,” he said.

The Shinzato Distillery has been producing awamori for 173 years. The original distillery was not spared during the Battle of Okinawa in World War II, which destroyed 90 per cent of buildings on the island. The distillery relocated twice before settling in Uruma City in central Okinawa 13 years ago.

what is awamori
Mr Shinzato believes that Okinawans should take pride in their local produce awamori. (Photo credit: Nicholas Koo)
Changing tastes

But the spirit is in trouble. In recent decades, younger drinkers have turned to Japanese wines and whiskies instead, preferring more modern alcoholic options. A survey conducted by Japanese brand management company, Dentsu, in July reported that 52.1 per cent of Tokyo residents have not even heard of awamori.

The highball, an alcoholic drink consisting of a spirit and non-alcoholic mixer, has become popular with not just the younger generation but with older folk as well, explained Mr Shinzato.

“They have a liking for whisky, and awamori companies all across the island find the highball to be a big competitor to awamori.”

Mr Naomasa Komine, 45, a bartender of 18 years, confirmed this trend. “There’s a decrease in consumption of awamori among Okinawans, especially among the youth who now prefer sweeter drinks such as highballs, sours and cocktails,” he said.

what is awamori
Guests finishing their beer, and their night, at an izakaya at Kokusai Street Food Village. (Photo credit: Nicholas Koo)

Ms Yukari Chinen, 22, fancies a drink with her friends at izakayas ever so often. She, however, prefers chuhai — a highball made with a distilled spirit called shochu.

“It’s more like juice,” said Ms Chinen. “Easy to drink.”

Reigniting tastes

Besides working as a bartender at The Bar Shiokawa, Mr Komine is also executive director at the Awamori Meister Association, a non- profit organisation dedicated to raising awareness of awamori. To reignite interest in the spirit, the association is planning to introduce awamori parties and cocktail nights starting next year.

Behind the doors of Shinzato Distillery, Mr Shinzato works hard to produce new kinds of drinks — all incorporating awamori — to pit it against more popular alcohols. As awamori itself has no added sugar, he adds flavours to make something sweeter, which is more popular with today’s market.

While umeshu is usually made with shochu, the distillery makes a version of the traditional plum liqueur with awamori. An espresso-inspired version of awamori, the brainchild of Mr Shinzato, is targeted at those with a penchant for coffee.

what is awamori
Chuko Distillery makes their clay vessels denser and stronger. This prevents alcohol from evaporating during the ageing process. (Photo credit: Nicholas Koo)

At the award-winning Chuko Distillery, founded in 1949, efforts to boost sales include concocting a smoother and better-tasting awamori as well as selling the Okinawan speciality in handcrafted earthenware.

Niche markets on the rise

At Awamori Souko — an upscale, members-only bar — bartender Atsushi Watanabe, 23, serves about 800 labels of awamori from almost every distillery across the island. He even has vintage bottles from now-defunct factories such as the Chiyoizumi Distillery. Mr Watanabe said club members are starting to appreciate awamori.

what is awamori
Mr Watanabe proudly displays the bottle of awamori from the last tank of the permanently-closed Chiyoizumi Distillery. (Photo credit: Nicholas Koo)

The bar, which has been around since 2005, has a membership of some 1,300 people, with most of its patrons in their thirties. Membership is a one-time payment of 20,000 yen (approx. RM750).

Having left a bachelor’s degree in economics to pursue a career in bartending, Mr Watanabe now promotes awamori through the tipples he serves while he explains the history of each drink.

“Awamori businesses are often family-owned, with small storehouses and a constant lack of successors,” he said. “We bought this bottle to spread the charm of awamori. If more people knew about awamori, Chiyoizumi Distillery may not have closed down.”

This article first appeared on Lifestyle Asia Singapore.

Nicholas Koo

Nicholas Koo is a final-year student of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. He was participating in the School’s journalism programme, Going Overseas for Advanced Reporting.