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Japan’s southernmost island of Okinawa is widely known for its balmy weather, stunning beaches fringed with coral reefs, and A-list diving sites. When bestselling author Dan Buettner came along in the early aughts, he designated the subtropical paradise as the first of five Blue Zones—areas with low rates of chronic diseases and a long life expectancy.
Last spring, I traveled to this remote, somewhat mythical island paradise (it has been called the "Land of Immortals") eager to tap into the island’s enticing ties with human longevity. Following my trusty tour guide, Junko Yokoo of Japan Guide Junko, no matter where I turned—every hotel, restaurant, café, izakaya, and convenience store—I'd notice that the longest-living people on earth frequently imbibe a spirit that's at least twice the strength of most locally consumed spirits.
Awamori measures anywhere from 30 to 40 percent ABV. Sometimes the local spirit hits 60 percent, depending on the distiller. As strong as it is delightful, I soon learned that the story of awamori and its fabled origins are intrinsically linked to the history of Okinawa itself.
History of Awamori
Considered an indigenous spirit produced solely in Okinawa, awamori dates as far back as 1470, when the Okinawan Islands were still known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, Junko explains to me as we make our way from the capital city of Naha to the “longevity village” of Ogimi—once a thriving trading hub between mainland Japan, China, and Thailand. Over 550 years later, the technique for distilling awamori has remained relatively unchanged.
Like the popular Japanese wine, sake, awamori is made by fermenting rice. However, unlike sake, awamori gets its distinct aroma and complex flavor profile from long-grain Indica rice from Thailand and black koji (malt) mold before it sits and steeps underground in large clay vessels, called kame.
“The black koji utilized in the distillation process gives the spirit its trademark umami flavor, and the clay pot aging process improves the spirit’s flavor,” says Hitoshi Utsunomiya, Director of Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association. If it’s been aged for three years or more, awamori is then called kusu, which offers a delicate floral and caramel bouquet.
Awamori holds a unique regional identity that’s deeply rooted in the island's historical separation from mainland Japan, Hitoshi tells me. “The consumption patterns of Japanese spirits vary across regions, contributing to a diverse cultural beverage landscape," he adds.
In Okinawa, locals tend to consume awamori exclusively, whereas on the greater Kyushu Islands, locals drink shochu, a distilled Japanese liquor made from a variety of ingredients such as barley, rice, or buckwheat. “Unlike the more widely known beverages like sake and shochu, many people on the mainland of Japan are unfamiliar with the rich history and distinct characteristics of awamori,” Hitoshi explains.
Awamori is so steeped in the tradition and local culture that the spirit is a source of great pride for Okinawans. Today, there are as many as 48 awamori distilleries across the island.
How to Enjoy Awamori
In the summer months, when temps and humidity are at an all-time high, awamori is typically served over ice and with a carafe of water or mixed with shikuwasa, a local lime-like citrus that also happens to have a number of healthy properties. I'll learn all about it at the shikuwasa “theme park” in Ogimi, an interactive shopping experience with tons of samples akin to a Trader Joe’s—if all Trader Joe’s sold was a lime-like fruit that holds the promise of a long and healthy life.
It’s not uncommon for locals to sip and savor awamori at the bar or while they dance or listen to traditional Okinawan folk music called Sanshin, which I experience one night as part of a “Blue Zone Stay” at one seaside resort in the village of Yomitan—spending the better part of that night sipping a perfectly balanced passion fruit awamori cocktail.
Awamori isn’t just reserved for drinking. It would seem to be used in nearly everything I ate on Okinawa, from condiments and soba noodles to Okinawan-style tofu (tofuyo) for breakfast. Remarkably, it’s sugar-free, contains no amino acids, and has a low-calorie count, which adds to the ancient spirit's health credentials.
If you bring home a bottle of awamori from Okinawa (along with some traditional drinking glasses) as I did, you'll likely discover that the bottle won't last all that long. Far more enduring, though, are Okinawa’s secret ingredients to living a long life: a healthy diet, moderate exercise, community, the world's most beautiful beaches—and your next bottle of awamori.