Awamori: A guide to Okinawa's tropical drink of choice

Awamori: A guide to Okinawa's tropical drink of choice

Japan's answer to bourbon is also an Okinawan favorite that deserves a wider audience
The colorful yet similar-looking labels are the first sign you've found awamori goodness.

Most drinkers are familiar in name at least with saké, the fermented “rice wine” so intimately associated with Japanese cuisine.

The more adventurous may know its working-class cousin shochu, a distilled spirit that forms the basis of many of the country’s cocktails.

But shochu’s tropical cousin awamori, which hails from the islands of Okinawa, gets far less attention abroad.

Awamori is a colorless distilled spirit whose closest analogue in the West is vodka -- but the similarities end with transparency.

Awamori is generally a far lower proof, a quality that helps brings out a complex flavor profile, rough hewn with just a hint of sweetness –- consider awamori something like Japan’s answer to bourbon.

Unlike shochu, which can be made from potato, barley, rice or soba, Awamori is distilled exclusively from just three ingredients -- water, black koji yeast-culture and Thai rice. In fact, it’s a localized version of a similar Thai beverage that first reached the islands in the 1400s.

More on CNN: Okinawa: Which island is for you? 

How to drink awamori

AwamoriHabushu: that which does not kill you makes you stronger.Served straight or on the rocks, awamori is a great mixer for cocktails, such as the locally loved ukon-wari, an astringent concoction of awamori and turmeric-powder tea. 

In addition to the standard variety, there are cask-aged versions called kusu, written, appropriately enough, with the characters for "old liquor."

With a higher alcohol content and a mellower, richer taste, kusu plays the single-malt scotch to Awamori's whiskey.

Most are aged from three to ten years. Two and even 300-year vintages were once commonly available, but the clay jugs in which they were traditionally stored didn't fare well amid the bombs and bullets of World War II. 

For the truly adventurous, there is habushu: awamori bottled with a small pit viper. It tastes pretty much how you'd imagine the fluid from a specimen bottle in your high school biology class might taste.

The price is right

Awamori is cheap. Really cheap. Try 500 yen (US$5.50) for a 750 ml bottle in some places.

Bottles can be found for less than 1,500 yen (US$16) at liquor shops and convenience stores throughout Tokyo. Even high-end kusu rarely tops 4,000 yen (US$43).

With hundreds of competing brands, choosing your first bottle of awamori can be confusing.

Your best bet is to ask a knowledgeable local.

Barring that, try them by the glass -- preferably at some seaside shack along the Okinawan coast. 

More on CNN: Okinawan cuisine: The Japanese food you don't know

Where to see it brewed and try it

An Okinawan restaurant without awamori is like a French restaurant without wine. There are plenty of places to toss back awamori, even if you're stranded in a higher latitude.

As an essential ingredient in Okinawan cuisine, you can find it at any good Okinawan restaurant. In fact, if a restaurant doesn't feature a healthy dozen or so varieties on its menu, it's a good sign you're probably better off eating elsewhere.

If you find you've developed a passion for Okinawa's tropical drink of choice, there are several awamori breweries in the prefecture that offer guided tours. 

Zuisen Shuzou Distillery,  Masahiro Awamori GalleryKamimura Distillery Mizuho Distillery and Chuko Distillery are all less than an hour's drive from Naha Airport in the Okinawa capital.

For more details, visit the official Okinawa Tourism website

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