Awamori’s evolution to become people’s drink in Okinawa


Awamori distilled spirits have become a signature specialty of Okinawa Prefecture thanks to local producers’ hard work to improve the manufacturing method for and taste of the liquor.

After Okinawa’s May 1972 return to Japan following post-World War II occupation by the United States, there was a time when the existence of awamori was at risk due to intensifying competition with sake and Western liquors.

“It had been said that awamori could not survive once Okinawa returns to Japan,” Takeshi Sakumoto, a 78-year-old official at Zuisen Distillery Co., based in the Okinawa capital of Naha, recalled.

Half a century ago, it was a golden age for whisky from abroad in entertainment districts in Okinawa Prefecture.

Suguru Tsujino, 75, who has been running Yunangi, an Okinawa cuisine restaurant in Naha, since 1970, said, “Customers used to say awamori is a liquor drunk at home and not a drink to pay for at bars or restaurants.” Awamori at the time “only had a strong smell,” according to Tsujino.

Feeling a sense of crisis over the situation, the Okinawa Regional Taxation Office set up the post of awamori “appraiser” for the first time in 1972 and started giving advice to brewers, with the aim of helping improve the quality of the beverage and bolster sales, and increasing liquor tax revenue consequently.

The appraisers “taught me from the calculating formula,” Sakumoto said, recalling that their instructions “were new to people at breweries who had made (awamori) intuitively.”

The smell of acid peculiar to awamori was reduced as breweries implemented thorough hygiene management and pursued cleanliness at their facilities. Also, improved filtration techniques made awamori taste better.

Still, the reputation of awamori did not change soon.

Sakumoto and employees at the tax office repeatedly visited local hotels to promote awamori for use at parties. Their efforts paid off, with the number of customers gradually increasing.

The turning point came in 1978, when awamori in a stylish cubic green bottle was released to change the liquor’s image dramatically. An increasing number of restaurants and bars started to use the product.

Masayuki Taira, 68, at Naha-based brewery Kumesen Syuzo Co., which launched the product, said: “At the time, we were looking for a stylish bottle, and a bottle maker gave us bottles that had remained unused. So, we used them as a test.”

“The result was that it became a big hit, and production couldn’t keep up with demand,” Taira recalled with a smile.

Production of awamori grew steadily on the back of an Okinawa boom sparked by popular television drama series Churasan, which featured the prefecture and was broadcast in 2001.

But shipments started to fall gradually later due in part to its declining popularity among locals, totaling 13,781 kiloliters in 2020, down about 50% compared with the peak level in 2004.

“Awamori has overcome an array of challenges,” Sakumoto said, however, showing his confidence in reviving demand.

Tsujino, who has a qualification as an “awamori master,” stressed the evolution of the liquor over the past 50 years, saying, “Awamori nowadays is thick, rich in flavor and smooth, and far tastier than it was in the past. I want people to try it.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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