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The Spirit of Okinawa

by Eric Madeen

When I was an impressionable university student some 25 years ago a grizzled veteran of a reporter-turned-journalism-professor told us if we couldn’t drink and write we weren’t cut out to be journalists. After all these years of sober scribbling I now finally have the chance to test his maxim. I am out on the town on my first night in Naha eagerly pursuing my story about Okinawa’s famed awamori, Japan’s oldest distilled liquor. Privy to my assignment to learn about or rather experience awamori, the fellow next to me at the bar and grill on Kokusai Dori is a wealthy tobacco farmer from Miyako Island. Dennis (a handle he picked up on a home stay in the U.S.) is teaching me that island’s notorious “otori”or bottom’s up custom of drinking awamori. The person who begins the round is called the owner and he makes a speech, drains his glass then pours for everyone. It’s spring break and a few students from the mainland on holiday are recruited. We guzzle a round, and it goes back to the good-natured tobacco farmer who closes his off by guzzling another glass, called a musabi—tying the knot. It’s my turn to be toastmaster. I keep it short and sweet then guzzle, fill, pass. After more than an hour of this—speak, guzzle, fill, pass—faces turn lobster red and the conversation is lively and ranges widely before Dennis invites me to a snack bar. Its mama-san produces a bottle of the good stuff, kusu, which is awamori that has been aged for at least three years. Since she’s also from Miyako Island we continue the ritual of pointing our faces at whoever is making the toast then dutifully draining glass after glass of the velvety elixir. Just shy of pumpkin hour I make my excuses—I have to get up early to tour a few awamori distilleries—then cab back to the hotel where I fall asleep on a bed of kusu. Awamori dreaming.

Waking with a hangover just mild enough to be pleasant (the mark of a pro) and thus verifying what I keep hearing—awamori doesn’t leave you with a nasty hangover—I head off to tour the impressive Okinawa Awamori Distillers Association, followed by Zuisen Distillery, one of the island’s oldest and largest, then a visit to Sakimoto Distillery whose third-generation president, Masao Sakumoto, tells me much about how the spirit of Okinawa is made.

The process begins by combining broken or crushed long-grained Thai rice, or indica, and a unique black malt yeast, or koji, which is found in the soil in Okinawa. When Okinawa reverted to Japanese sovereignty in 1972 it was ordered that Japanese rice, or Japonica, be used in place of Thai rice. But because indica is drier and absorbs the yeast much better, Japonica wasn’t used for long. Said Sakumoto-san, “We tried it once. Just once. No good.”Fermentation then distillation takes place before it is aged in a variety of vessels. Interesting. The black-brown spores of the yeast give off citric acid, which slows the growth of harmful bacteria, crucial for ameliorating the spirit’s keeping qualities in the hot and humid climate of Okinawa.


I had the good fortune to be introduced to a potter, one of only two on Okinawa who still make the large, traditional stoneware pots for setting down awamori. His method is in the traditional style of kick-wheel and coiling for making 1.8- to 140-liter pots bought by private citizens for ageing awamori, which is becoming a boom in Okinawa. (In fact, serving guests fine aged kusu is a custom that’s very much alive in Okinawa.) He graciously shepherded me around the island on a grand awamori tour. We were on the road to the northern town of Nago, the vegetation turning more lush and the terrain more mountainous as we drove. In Kin Town, halfway up the island, we stopped at a limestone cave then carefully descended narrow stairs twisting and turning deeper into the maw of stalagmites and stalactites, finally reaching the treasure: rack upon rack, pot after pot, of precious kusu ageing supremely in steady cave temperature of 18 degrees Centigrade all year round. Nametags dangling from bottlenecks identified this as private stock. Under the various nets of light stood shelves of tofuyo containers as well. The cave was damp and silent save for the pitter patter of dripping water, a few drops striking my notebook, smearing the ink of my penmanship. I pressed a button and heard a recording in Japanese of an explanation of the cave.

Just before Nago City we drove along the coast. The ocean was a stunning turquoise slashed with wave curls and the beach dazzled white under milky cumulous in a blue sky, my image of Okinawa realized.


In Nago we met with Tamotsu Nakamura and Seibin Shimabukuro, awamori connoisseurs who showed us storerooms brimming with ageing kusu in traditional stoneware pots—as old as 600 years—plus bottles the size of bowling pins. What with all the old pottery and abundance of kusu ageing and accruing in value, the storerooms were like bank vaults: worth a fortune. It’s customary in Okinawa to put down a pot of awamori on the birth of a baby. When reaching 20, the new adult is given the bottle on that birthday. It’s also customary to keep a few pots of awamori in a line, with that taken from the oldest pot replaced from the newer stock and so on down the line. But these refined gentlemen had the art of ageing awamori perfected, taking turns explaining intricacies. “When you finish the awamori in one pot you never wash it since you’d lose valuable bacteria. You just pour in the newer stuff. The best way to make good kusu is by taking it out 10 percent at a time then pouring a liter or 10 percent of the next kusu from the next pot in; this keeps the alcohol alive, keeps it moving. It’ll stagnate otherwise and won’t have a fresh impact. It’s like rearing a child, making good kusu. Can’t relax.”

“Since you’re writing about awamori,”Nakamura-san said, “I want to serve you the best there is.”It was a superb 49-year-old kusu served in little stoneware cups, ochokko, the size of thimbles on the thumbs of giants. Tinted yellow from minerals in the pot, this was the same splendid stuff that former President Clinton was served in the G8 Summit in 2000. They poured and measured the kusu with a chemist’s precision, cautioning, “You don’t guzzle it. Finish it in no fewer than five sips. It’s not a party drink but is to be sipped and treasured.”No otori here. As the potter pointed out, “If they think you’re a guzzler they won’t waste it on you since guzzling would show that you don’t know what you’re drinking. When it takes a few seconds to kick in, that’s the sign of a good awamori.”Such was the case with this fine elixir.

As I sipped splendid kusu the three of them talked pottery and how it was preferable to the stainless steel that distillers use for ageing awamori since stoneware gives a more mellow flavor. (To be fair, some distillers claim that their stainless steel tanks lend a fresh flavor to awamori.) Next we talked lids and caps. The potter said silicone was problematic because the awamori breaks it down and it gives the liquor the flavor of gasoline. Wood soaks up liquid and swells too much. The general agreement was that old stoneware pottery lids were best. Then Shimabukuro-san ladled out some 37-percent nine-year-old kusu into a 400-year-old karakara, or flask. We sipped. Magnificent. “Now compare it with this 43 percent and tell us which you like more.”Relieved at my immediate choice of the 43 percent, they chuckled and nodded agreement.

Ohh, how the kusu went down. Smooth. Without jagging, then breathed fire across the chests of men. This is a male thing after all, an estimated 80 percent of awamori connoisseurs said to be men. But the spirit is rapidly crossing gender lines with the introduction of lower-proof awamori and awamori cocktails. On that note, Bar Dick—here we come!

The birthplace of the awamori cocktail, Bar Dick is just off of Kokusai Dori and its pleasant ambience is bartenders in bow ties, low lights, spinning ceiling fans, jazz and Casablanca posters all around. Takahiko Sakanashi, the manager, served up his three top sellers: a delicious Goya, the award winning Southern Island Okinawa, and a refreshing Awamori Tonic (which I was told is even better in summer when he uses shiikuwasa, a small lime-like Okinawa fruit). He explained that many couples frequent the establishment and that it gets going late. But it’s still early...


On the way back down the island to the potter’s house I cleansed my palette by sampling the local brew, sinking three Orions. In the potter’s living room now I watched him ladle out a 22-year-old habushu kusu from a glass container inside of which was coiled a habu snake which looked fierce with its mouth open and fangs out and nightmarish, what with the glass and liquid magnifying its striking pose. I sipped—call the taste awamori on the wild side—and listened. (Note, Professor, still taking lucid notes.) “The snake is put in the awamori alive.”He motioned to the natural environs surrounding his house. “Catch them all around the place. Drink it during the first stages of a cold and you’ll never catch that cold. It’s only the poisonous snakes you can use. You can’t let the snake’s head out of the awamori. It has to drown there. Make them drink awamori to get them drunk then squeeze it out of them. Stick in a toothpick or a piece of chopstick to cram open the mouth, then immerse them in awamori. Let them squirm for a few days before rigor mortis sets in. Take the toothpick out and the mouth is locked open. In this one there’s a 180-centimeter snake.”

We drank three types, the first a 22-year-old, the second a five-year-old and the third a 10-year-old kusu aged with a sea snake and ginseng giving off its flavor. “You either like it or don’t,”he continued. “Most Okinawans don’t drink it.”I drank and enjoyed it but then when it came to his detailing the ins and outs—pun intended—of evisceration I found myself feeling my oats—or rather koji—and losing critical focus and putting down my pen (not the mark of a pro).


Capping off a long day of drinking we were at a lively restaurant called Payao, or Reef Point, near Kokusai Dori. Strains of a sanshin poured from speakers. “Slow time, slow food,”explained Teiko Maeda, the good-natured manager. A wonderland of supreme Ryukyuan dishes was served. Especially noteworthy was the sashimi miso ae with umibudo, or sea grape. Fantastic! Maeda-san told me she likes her awamori with water and sometimes with ice but mixes it with wine or beer when she wants to get a good buzz. As we progressed through several exquisite courses she brought out incredible kusu. She first served a 10-year-old kusu then a 20-year-old kusu that would fetch 50,000 yen on the mainland, she said, where awamori is rapidly becoming popular with the youth set. Then more remarkable still was a 37-year-old. She exclaimed to my question as to its value, “Nedan nai!”Can’t put a price on it. The 37-year-old had a soft bouquet and went down silky smooth then did its fire dance and I was feeling it and scribbling notes feverishly through my awamori high, Okinawan style. Experience it.


This article first appeared in Wingspan, the inflight magazine of All Nippon Airways.