The traditions and methods of brewing Awamori originally came in from Thailand, with influences from Indonesia, Taiwan, China and Korea. It is the very first distilled alcoholic beverage from Japan
Awamori is made only in Japan's southern most prefecture, the tropical island group of Okinawa. Currently, there are but 47 makers of this unique, earthy beverage, although awamori is enjoying a boom right now, and business is brisk. Due to the influence of the US presence from WWII until 1972, for decades the drink of choice in Okinawa was scotch or whiskey. Now, however, this erstwhile gift to the Shogun of Japan has resumed its rightful place as a very popular sipping beverage in its own land.
There are quite a few ways in which awamori is unique. The pre-distillation ferment is made in such away that there is plenty of citric acid created, which allows awamori to be made all year round in this hot climat. It is distilled once, and afterwards the alcohol content is lowered with water to about 25 to 30 percent, although some awamori is found at 43 percent alcohol.
There are several theories on the origins of the word awamori itself. "Awa" means foam and "mori" can mean to rise up. One theory then is that the foam would rise in great swaths during per-distillation fermentation. Another is that long ago the level of alcohol was measured by pouring the awamori from a height of an outstretched arm into a small cup, and measuring how much foam rose in the cup. Yet a third, less romantic, states that this name was forced upon the Ryukyu distillers by the Satsuma clan of Kagoshima to be sure that it would not be confused with their beloved shochu.
Etymological considerations aside, as mentioned above, awamori is a beverage distilled from rice. It differs from sake, mainland Japan's indigenous drink, in that sake is brewed, not distilled. Also, sake is made with short-grain Japonica rice, whereas awamori is made using long-grain indica rice that is imported from Thailand (even today). It differs from shochu, Japan's other distilled beverage, (although much shochu is made from materials other than rice) in several ways, including process variations, as well as the type of koji mold (used for saccharification) and yeast.
A word worth remembering when shopping for awamori is "kusu." Kusu is aged awamori. It is written with the same characters as the Japanese word koshu, which refers to aged sake, the pronunciation is unique to Awamori and Okinawa.
Awamori was meant to be aged, and aged for a long time. Like many beverages distilled from grains, aging mellows the flavor and rounds out the edges. While awamori aged ten years can be wonderful, it becomes even more enjoyable at 20 or 25 years. (One of the challenges to the awamori industry is how to remain financially viable while they wait on the returns of their long-term investment. )
But the traditional method of aging awamori, known as "shitsugi," is very curious and does not boast a high degree of repeatability. To explain it, we need to bear in mind that hundreds of years ago, when the Ryukyu kingdom was in its heyday, folks would have several lidded urns of awamori lined up outside the house. The urn containing the oldest awamori was closest to the door, with each urn having successively younger product inside.
When a drink was ladled out from the first urn, the amount taken was then replaced with awamori from the second urn. This in turn was refilled from the third urn and so on. Freshly distilled stuff was placed into the last urn when ready. This led to each urn having inside of it an indeterminable blend of awamori of different degrees of aging. So although kusu refers to aged awamori, traditionally it was not really possible to be any more precise than that.
Modern times, laws, and consumer guidelines call for a bit more accuracy, and currently for a bottle of awamori to have kusu on the label, at least 51\% of the contents must have been aged at least three years. While this allows for the traditional shitsugi method of aging, it still means that 49\% of it could be freshly distilled stuff. So, while it may be a bit harder to find and a tad more expensive, it is worth it to search for 100\% kusu of ten years or more. It will be clearly written as such on the bottle, i.e. "100\% aged 10 years," or something to that effect. Having said that, it is very difficult to find something like a bottle of kusu of which 100\% has been aged 25 years.
When the Ryukyu kingdom was in its prime, the best kusu was served at only the most special of occasions. It was presented in very small thimble-sized cups, called "saka-jiki," holding perhaps a tablespoon, that are dwarfed by the average "o-chokko" sake cup. These ae still used today in some situations. It was said that while wealthy people might entrust their money to others, they would always keep the keys to their awamori cellar with them.