As a long-time resident of Okinawa and one who works is in the food and beverage industry, I get the “Which awamori do you recommend?” question quite often. Today, I decided to compile a list of awamori recommendations for people who are beginning their awamori journey. I published my first ever podcast episode with the same title last night. Note, I am not a professional awamori advisor or meister. However, I know a few brands that I like and can explain why. Below are four examples of awamori brands that I would start with when introducing the spirit to beginners.
First Of All, What Is Awamori?
Before jumping right into the brand introductions, let me explain what awamori is. It is a rice-based spirit that is made from imported Thai rice. This Indica rice (long-grain rice) has been the preferred ingredient since the beginning of awamori production in the Ryukyu Kingdom for about 600 years. From what I understand, long-grain rice is preferred for its ability to perform well in the hot and humid climate of Okinawa. During the fermentation process, Indica rice particularly does well with black koji, which is used to convert the starch to sugars. You may already know about various koji molds, but if not, there are several types of koji that are prevalent in Japan and essential for preparing Japanese cuisine. For example, koji is used when making tofu, miso, Japanese sake, shochu, awamori, and much more. According to Japanese law, Awamori producers must use black koji but they are free to use any type of rice to ferment.
Four Awamori To Try And Why
Since I started by covering the topic of rice, it seems the first brand of awamori to introduce should be Shimaurara, produced by Yaesen Distillery in Ishigaki Island. Shimaurara is unique because it is made with Ishigaki grown rice as opposed to Thai rice. This feature gives Shimaurara a soft texture on the palate. It is an enjoyable smoothness that is easy to drink straight or on the rocks. Shimaurara is bottled at 25% alcohol by volume (ABV). I often also drink it with a lemon slice to add a bit of flavor. This simplicity is the beauty of awamori.
This brand was a Gold Medal winner during the 2020 Tokyo Wine and Spirits Competition. Congratulations! Besides the award-winning accolades, I’m all for supporting local farming and agriculture. If you live in Japan and are interested in trying Shimaurara, the link below (embedded in the photo) takes you to the Amazon Japan page for the 720ml sized bottle.
The second brand that is noteworthy is Danryu Amber Legend 30% ABV. What is unique about this brand is that it one of the few awamori brands that are cask aged. It was created in 1968 after the company president desired to do his part to help restart the awamori industry that had been lost after WWII. Danryu was born after years of research into which mix of cask-aged awamori would do best with standard awamori. The thought was that since much of Okinawa was more accustomed to Western drinks at the time, such as beer and whiskey, it might be a worthwhile experiment to combine awamori with whiskey flavors that people grew a preference for.
Thus, Danryu was created, it is a kusu (koshu in Japanese), which means it is aged for 3 years or more, typically in steel tanks. It is then blended with cask-aged awamori. This imparts a unique flavor profile that is still unlike most awamori on the market. The oak cask aging also renders an amber color to the liquid, whereas most awamori is clear. I believe Danryu Amber Legend makes for a good brand to introduce people because they are more likely coming from dark spirits such as whiskey and rum and this would be familiar to them.
The producer, Kamimura Distillery, also bottles a brand of Danryu at 40% ABV. I will include a photo of it below as well, but the difference between the 30% ABV is that the 40% is tank-aged kusu that is blended with cask-aged kusu. So, the 40% ABV is 100% kusu. Both brands are award winners. Danryu 30% won Gold Awards for three consecutive years at Monde Selection. The 40% ABV recently took home a Gold Medal during the 2021 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Congratulations to Kamimura Distillery for its success with both brands. My recommendation is to try the 30% ABV first before moving to 40% ABV.
Two More Awamori To Recommend
Rounding out the last two awamori brands to recommend, I would like to start by saying this list is in no specific order. The words are just flowing out of me and I am typing as much as I can off of memory. I am pretty sure that I am not following the podcast dialogue that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. That too was just my speaking from memory, nothing was written down. Without further ado, below is the last two.
Kamejikomi from Ishikawa Distillery is special because it is intentionally made using traditional clay jar distillation methods. Such methods took place during a time when Okinawa was an independent country known as the Ryukyu Kingdom. The kingdom had a long tributary relationship with China and become known for its regional trade. This positioning also led to Okinawa being dubbed the “Keystone of the Pacific” during the Second World War.
Kamejikomi is a flagship brand of awamori that is fermented mixed and aged using jars. This is the traditional preparation method for awamori before the steel tanks came along. Of course, batches prepared in jars take up more space and produce less quantity of product. However, the quality is quite different when compared to steel tank-prepared awamori. Thus, the Kamejikomi brand can likely be considered craft or small batch awamori.
It has also won several awards such as the Okinawa Governor’s Award and Awamori Blender of the Year, both awards obtained in 2020. I recommend it for people who want to taste an awamori that is closer to the origin. This was at a time when kusu well over 100 years old existed. Additionally, kusu was a valuable trade commodity or given as a tribute to Chinese or Japanese Emporer(s) during Ryukyu tributary missions. Unfortunately, most of the centuries-old kusu were destroyed during WWII. Only one is known to exist today; it is on display at Shikina Distillery, in Naha City. Kamejikomi is typically aged for 5 years and is bottled at 25%, 30%, and 43% ABV. One popular brand of Kamejikomi is 10-year kusu. Matter of fact, I think I need to get a bottle for myself.
For the last awamori for beginners, we have Uminchu Premium, by Masahiro Distillery. This awamori is unique because it is made using yeast that is typically used with Nihonshu aka Japanese sake. The use of this yeast gives the awamori a floral and fruity flavor profile. It is noticeably different compared to other brands of awamori. At 30% ABV, it is a nice sipping spirit. On the rocks or mixed with water would also be recommended but I wouldn’t bother adding anything else. Interestingly, awamori manufacturers often use various types of yeast to experiment with and produce special blends. For example, one popular distiller uses a type of mango yeast, another uses yeast created from the hibiscus flower.
Of course, the above-recommended awamori is in no way meant to be an exhaustive list. There are about 47 distilleries in Okinawa, that collectively present hundreds of other great products that could be enjoyed. I also did not mention other beverages that are made with awamori as the base, such as liqueurs. A further discussion about the popular ways to enjoy awamori is also needed. Mixing awamori with water is well known but other suggestions would go well.
If you are curious about awamori and still have questions, please feel free to drop me a message, email, or comment. I will try to answer as best as I can. Most importantly, get out and try some awamori! Look for it at your favorite liquor store or perhaps an Asian food retailer. If you are living in Okinawa, it will be easy to track down. We also plan on hosting awamori tasting events in the future. Check back for post-COVID event announcements.