WHAT IS AWAMORI?
This rice-based spirit is produced only in Okinawa, a subtropical archipelago that’s the southernmost prefecture of Japan – but actually geographically closer to Taiwan than Tokyo.
The raw material for awamori is long-grain rice from Thailand, which is used nowadays because Okinawa can’t produce enough of the right kind locally. The rice is steamed then laid out on large tables to cool to the correct temperature.
Next comes the part that’s unknown in the West – the rice is inoculated with koji, a type of fungus. The koji has several functions – it breaks down the starch in the rice to sugar, which can then be converted to alcohol by yeast, and also starts adding compounds that give unique umami flavours by breaking down proteins to their constituent amino acids. This step is very similar to the way the Japanese produce sake rice wine. After the koji spores have been sprinkled on the rice, they are usually left for two days (or sometimes a little more) to act.
After the koji phase, the treated rice is placed in a tank with yet more steamed rice, water and yeast – and allowed to ferment. The resulting low-alcohol beverage is then distilled one time in a pot still to produce awamori. Some awamori is bottled basically straight away while some varieties are aged in clay pots for several years to mellow their flavor.
The islands of Okinawa were for centuries part of the ancient Ryukyu Kingdom before they were annexed by Japan in the late 19th century. Like many beverages with a long history, the etymology behind the name awamori is a bit of a mystery. One popular theory is that awa refers to the bubbles created during production and mori refers to the way they rise or swell.