Japanese spirits are steadily increasing in popularity, with more consumers being willing to try new drinks and learn about the history of the beverages. Despite this, there is still a lack of awareness about what makes spirits like shochu and awamori unique, especially the latter.
Awamori is generally lumped into the shochu category, but it stands alone with its own special history and importance. With that in mind, here are six amazing facts about awamori to demystify this ancient spirit.
1. Okinawa’s national spirit
Awamori is indigenous to the Okinawan islands and is produced with the following ingredients: black koji, Indica rice, yeast and water.
This is different from shochu, which can be produced from a broader range of base starches like sweet potato, barley and buckwheat. Shochu can also be made with yellow or white koji, while awamori can only be made with black.
Another key difference between the spirits is that shochu has a two-step distillation method, whereas awamori only has one.
2. A royal drink
During the 18th and early 19th centuries, awamori was reserved exclusively for the Okinawan royal family. The famed Ryukyu courtier and nobleman Sai On was of the opinion that distilled alcohol should only be enjoyed by the upper echelon of society.
The King clearly shared On’s opinion, as it was decreed that awamori could only be distilled under a royal patronage. Only 40 distillers were granted this right and they had to produce awamori in sight of Shuri Castle in the Sanka region.
3. Perfect for a poetry slam
Okinawans are well-known for their celebrations and awamori plays an important role in helping them to let loose. One such event is called otori, which originated from the people of Miyakojima to the south of Okinawa’s main island.
Otori involves a storyteller called an oya, who downs a shot of awamori, refills it and then sends the glass to the next person. Each member of the circle tells a story, gives a speech or recites a poem.
4. Matured to perfection
Ageing awamori is a common practice in Okinawa. Called kusu, (koshu in regular Japanese), aged awamori is usually kept in clay pots that are stored underground or in caves.
This tradition has a strong connection to family life. Okinawans purchase their own awamori clay pots to mark occasions like births or weddings. For example, on the day of a man’s 20th birthday, the father may break out awamori from the pot and it’ll be enjoyed by all the family to celebrate the milestone.
5. Snakebite medicine
Japan has a history of producing medicinal drinks that feature ‘natural ingredients’ like plants and animals. One of the most infamous is habushu, which involves drowning a pit viper in awamori.
The snake’s venom is diluted by the alcohol and is thought to give a potent kick. No wonder it’s favoured by old men who’re convinced it can restore their virility!
6. The sound of a refill
A traditional way of drinking awamori is out of a chibugwa cap alongside a carafe called a gari-gari. It features a ceramic ball inside, which makes a ‘gari-gari’ sound once the vessel has been emptied.
Interestingly, this sound was a necessity when awamori was prized as a royal drink. It also stopped stingy hosts from refusing to pour more awamori for their guests. The noise of the gari-gari kept everyone honourable and ensured all the drinks were shared equally.