Awamori, An Ancient Japanese Spirit From Okinawa, Is Getting A Second Wind In Cocktails and As A Aged Collectible

We explore why Japan’s oldest distilled spirit is ripe for rediscovery.
by Ben Chin

Photo: RPM by D.Bespoke

Think Japanese spirits and shochu, a distilled alcoholic drink often made with rice and sweet potatoes, invariably comes to mind. However, awamori, an obscure Okinawan rice liquor that dates back 600 years, is poised for a renaissance.

Older generations and drunk in rituals typically enjoy one of Japan’s best-kept secrets, awamori. In recent years, awamori makers have diversified their offerings to attract a wider audience, and mixologists are finding innovative ways to incorporate the traditional drink into modern cocktails.

Awamori’s distinctive earthiness comes from its unusual ingredients — long-grained Thai Indica rice and black koji mould. According to sommelier and sake specialist Thomas Ling, awamori’s intrinsic link to Okinawan culture can be traced back to the prefecture’s trade history with Southeast Asia.


Okinawa Ryukyu Awamori – Zanpa (24 years). (Photo: I&CO)

Distillation techniques were learned from its trading partners, including the Kingdom of Siam, and then refined by the people of the Ryukyu Kingdom, as Okinawa was known from the 15th to 18th century. Black koji was added to impart the distilled spirit with an unmistakable assertive flavour.

“Awamori was considered a ‘strong, funky, old man’ drink that no young people wanted to drink,” shares Wakana Murata, head bartender of Tokyo Confidential. It was a “grandmother” drink, often matured in ceramic jars called “kame” in Okinawan households and watered down before imbibing.


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These days, awamori has become more fashionable in cocktail bars. Awamori brands are also starting to be exported overseas — premium labels such as Zanpa and Uminokuni, produced by Higashuzo distillery and Okinawa Distillery Cooperative Association, respectively, made their Singaporean debut in March.

Japanese bar RPM by D.Bespoke uses Zanpa 12, a “single-distillery” awamori aged for 12 years, in its classic Espresso Martini to add depth and complexity, but it can be enjoyed in myriad ways. “Matured awamori is highly versatile — whether sipped neat, blended with soda, or crafted into cocktails,” says bar manager Shinya Sato. “It shows its full potential, no matter how you drink it.”

A second wind


Awamori Espresso Martini, RPM by D.Bespoke. (Photo: RPM by D.Bespoke)

There were signs that awamori was slowly entering the mainstream. In 2023, Scotch maker Glenfiddich released the limited Grand Yozakura expression, the first single malt finished in rare Japanese Awamori casks. More unusually, Kujira Ryukyu Whisky from Masahiro Distillery, one of the oldest distilleries in Okinawa, boldly eschews the classic malted barley used in Scotch, using awamori instead as a base.

“Awamori was declining in popularity as people became interested in other spirits. I wanted to present new, unique spirits that reflect Okinawa and traditional awamori-making methods,” explains Masayasu Higa, the 8th-generation owner of Masahiro Distillery.

“Modern awamori is getting even better with complexity and less aggressive notes,” enthuses Tokyo Confidential’s Murata. “In our low-abv cocktail ‘Go Lightly,’ we use an awamori from Zuisen distillery called Sho. It is made through a triple distillation to remove its unique, funky notes. It also finishes at a lower abv than traditional awamori. I’ve been using Sho in cocktails, often paired with juicy, rich flavours like peach, pineapple, and plum, and people love it.”


Go Lightly, Tokyo Confidential. (Photo: Millie Tang)

Better with time

Kusu or awamori, aged over three years, is also gaining traction among connoisseurs. Zanpa 24, which has a malty, mellow flavour and a nose of custard and vanilla, and Uminokuni 24, which is more sweet and fruity, are some of the oldest expressions available here.

“Both Zanpa and Uminokumi are recognised as Ryukyu Awamori, undergoing the elaborate process of ageing and bottling in Okinawa before being exported globally. Only awamori produced in Okinawa prefecture earn the status of Ryukyu Awamori, which is protected by the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, similar to the protected status of champagne and cognac,” explains Heat Ikehara, director of Okinawa Prefectural Government Singapore Representative Office.


Okinawa Ryukyu Awamori – Zanpa and Uminokuni. (Photo: I&CO)

In 1945, most awamori cellars and distilleries, alongside their stock, including some said to be aged for over a century, were destroyed in The Battle of Okinawa, which devastated most of the island.

To better protect aged awamori, the Okinawa Distillery Cooperative Association, established in 1976, procures long-matured kusu from its member producers for storage and safekeeping. According to the association, the oldest awamori in its care is an astounding 150-year kusu from producer Shikina Shuzo.

It is not unlikely that collectors, like those in the whisky world, would turn their attention to rare and aged awamori expressions in the near future. With less than 50 awamori distilleries in Okinawa, stock available for export is, to say the least, limited.

“Awamori is the only Japanese alcohol that continues to mature post-bottling, similar to wine. This is a rare quality in distilled beverages that further increases their investability. Following the footsteps of sake and Japanese whisky, we can see a future whereby collectors are looking for awamori of different ages and brands,” says RPM by D.Bespoke’s Sato.

This story originally published on The Peak Singapore.

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