Japan’s oldest spirit made its debut in the UK on the first day of Imbibe Live.
Awamori is distilled from rice, and ranges in strength from 25% to 65% abv.
If you think it sounds like shochu, there’s a reason: awamori was first made 600 years ago in Okinawa, and the technique was then exported to the Japanese mainland, where it was adapted. There are significant differences between awamori and shochu, however.
Awamori can only come from the island of Okinawa, three hours plane flight south west of Tokyo, and it is made only with indica rice, imported from Thailand, before a single mashing (rather than two for shochu). After distillation it must be aged for over six months before release.
Ageing can be carried out in a variety of vessels, from stainless steel to porcelain or oak, though it doesn’t act like most western spirits even then.
‘Awamori changes its flavours on its own,’ said Masayasu Higa, director of Masahiro Shuzo Co, which was showing the products off at the show. ‘In this it is different from saké or whisky, which change flavour because of the barrel.’
If awamori is aged up to three years, it is called ‘young’; over three years, it is officially ‘old’ and can show the exact period of ageing on the label.
Imbibe found them to be soft and round, often with a gentle spiciness through the palate and a distinct savoury yeasty note for older versions. The finish tends towards sweetness.
‘For beginners, drinking them over ice is a good way to get started,’ said Higa, though bartenders might want to experiment too.
Reo Nomura from Cubé Japanese tapas and fine dining restaurant in Mayfair uses it to make a beguilingly good Okinawa Old Fashioned, using Antica Formula, Kokutou sugar and grapefruit bitters.
‘Bourbon has a spicy aroma as well, but it’s got a higher abv, so you feel that it’s a softer drink,’ he told Imbibe.
Final endorsement came from Mitsuhiro Miyakoshi, a senior member of the Japanese parliament, who had flown in specially to visit the Japanese stands at Imbibe Live.
Self-confessed ‘number-one fan of awamori in the Japanese parliament,’ he told Imbibe: ‘There are 46 awamori producers and every one is different.’