Awamori is technically a different spirit than shochu, though even many Japanese tend to combine them into a single category. Awamori is distilled exclusively in Okinawa from long grain Indica (Thai) rice and Okinawan black koji. These spirits are among the most flavorful and sought after among shochu aficionados due to their complex flavors, relative rarity, and a long history of aged perfection.
To the uninitiated Awamori can be off-putting as they have a very strong scent. Someone less kind might even call it an odor, due to the fatty acids that remain in the spirit and are trapped by bottling. This wasn’t a problem traditionally, because Awamori was sold in clay pots, which breathed, releasing the fatty acid and mellowing the spirit. The smell belies the nature of the spirit itself as the underlying tastes can be earthy, floral, sweet, herbal, or some combination of these.
Aged (kusu) Awamoris may be aged in clay pots for 20 years or more prior to bottling. These aged spirits command a very high price tag with several hundred dollars per bottle not unheard of. There are bars in Tokyo that will sell a single glass of kusu Awamori for $70 or more.
Therefore, our Awamori recommendations require a bit more explanation. We are rating these on a much steeper scale than other shochu varieties, because we have tried some very good kusu Awamori in Okinawa, sadly not available in the U.S. Please consider the Awamori recommendations relative to one another rather than against other shochu styles.
Also keep in mind that what we like may not be what you like so you should explore all of these Awamori to your heart’s content … if you can find them.
Ryukyu Ohcho Full of complex flavors, reminiscent of the Chinese spirit, Kaohliang.
Zuisen Hakuryu This is a tasty, mellow Awamori with an unexpected finish.
Kumejima’s Kumsen Our first Awamori experience and still one of our favorites.
Mizuho A subtle, low proof Awamori. An excellent introduction to the spirit.
Fisherman Collection A rich, sweet Awamori with a lot of character despite the silly bottling. Taiwan import market.
Shimauta This is an excellent choice for an introduction to the style.
Awamori photo used courtesy of Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau.