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Awamori (泡盛, Okinawan: アームイ, 'āmui) is an alcoholic beverage indigenous and unique to Okinawa, Japan. It is made from long grain indica rice, and is not a direct product of brewing (like sake) but of distillation (like shōchū). The majority of awamori made today uses indica rice imported from Thailand, as the local production is largely insufficient to meet domestic demand.
Awamori is typically 60–86 proof (30–43% alcohol), although "export" brands (including brands shipped to mainland Japan) are increasingly 50 proof (25% alcohol). Some styles (notably hanazake) are 120 proof (60%) and are flammable. Awamori is aged in traditional clay pots to improve its flavor and mellowness.
The most popular way to drink awamori is with water and ice. When served in a restaurant in Okinawa, it will nearly always be accompanied by a container of ice and carafe of water. Awamori can also be drunk straight, on the rocks, and in cocktails. Traditionally, awamori was served in a kara-kara, a small earthen vessel with a small clay marble inside. The marble would make a distinctive "kara-kara" sound to let people know the vessel was empty. These vessels are still found in Okinawa, but the clay marbles are often absent.
Another name for awamori used in Okinawa is "island sake" (島酒, shima-zake), or shima for short.
In general the price of awamori increases with the beverage's age.
Awamori owes its existence to Okinawa's trading history. It originates from the Thai drink Lao Khao (เหล้าขาว). The technique of distilling reached Okinawa from Thailand (formerly known as Ayutthaya Kingdom) in the 15th century, a time when Okinawa served as a major trading intermediary between Southeast Asia, China, and Japan. All awamori is made from Thai rice ("thai-mai"). The Okinawans refined the distillation process, incorporating techniques from nearby countries, making it more suitable for the subtropical climate and incorporating the unique local black koji mold. From the 15th to 19th century, awamori was sent as a tribute to Okinawa's powerful neighbors, China and Japan.
Before April 1983, awamori was labelled as a second class shochu; it is now labelled as "authentic awamori".
In 2017, facing declining sales in the home market, three of Okinawa's prominent Awamori distilleries combined their efforts to introduce awamori to overseas markets, specifically to the US and Europe. The product, labelled as RYUKYU 1429 Authentic Ryukyu Awamori made its European debut in the UK in June 2019.
Although awamori is a distilled rice liquor, it differs from Japanese shochu in several ways. Awamori is made in a single fermentation while shochu usually uses two fermentations. Furthermore, awamori uses Thai-style, long-grained Indica crushed rice rather than the short-grained Japonica usually used in shochu production. Finally, awamori exclusively uses black koji mold (Aspergillus awamori) indigenous to Okinawa, while Japanese shochu uses white (aspergillus kawachii), black, and yellow (Aspergillus oryzae) koji molds.
When awamori is aged for three years or more, it is called kusu (古酒, "old liquor"). This pronunciation is unique to awamori; it derives from Okinawan; elsewhere in Japan, the word is pronounced "koshu" and refers to aged sake. Legally, in order to earn the designation "kusu", the awamori must be aged for a minimum of three years. If a specific age is noted, then all of the contents must be of at least that age. Awamori is aged underground in constant cool temperatures in clay pots or vases. Containers of awamori can be found in the caves of Okinawa. Before the Battle of Okinawa during World War II, 200- and even 300-year-old kusu existed, but all were lost in the battle. Several attempts are being made to produce these kusu again.
On Yonaguni, Japan's westernmost island, the three distilleries of Donan, Yonaguni and Maifuna produce a variant of awamori called hanazake (花酒), lit. "flower liquor", which has an alcohol content of 60%. Originally intended for religious ceremonies, hanazake is traditionally consumed straight.
Awamori is thought to get its name from the bubbles awa (泡) that rise and swell mori (盛) during its distillation. The more bubbles, the higher the alcohol concentration in the final product.
Despite being commonly written with the kanji character 泡 (bubble), there are other theories on the origin of the name. One of these is that the name derives from 粟 (also pronounced awa), meaning millet, a raw material used to make awamori centuries ago, now completely replaced with rice.
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- "Awamori - Kampai!".
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- Okinawa Prefectural Government, "Awamori", Okinawa: Cultural Promotion Division, Okinawa Tourism and Cultural Affairs Bureau, 1996.
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