Cheers! in Okinawa

A Hawaii company is making an ancient Okinawan drink available for modern American tastes

Yu Shing Ting
Friday - December 02, 2005
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This maneki neko cat welcomes two new lines of awamori from Okinawa
This maneki neko cat welcomes two new lines of
awamori from Okinawa

Next time you dine out, ask for a glass of awamori. Awa what? Awamori, the distilled spirit of Okinawa that has been in existence for more than 500 years and is only now finally being introduced to the mainstream U.S. market.

“Now awamori will be available at not just the niche Japanese markets, but the American markets and restaurants,” explains Randy Kuba of Awamori Spirits, which is importing two lines of awamori - Dancing Sea and CraZcrane - into Hawaii and eventually to the Mainland. “Anyplace that serves vodka will serve awamori.”

The Okinawan liquor is comparable to shochu and is often mistaken for sake. Its main ingredients are Thai rice and black (koji) yeast indigenous to Okinawa. It is fermented, distilled, then aged for an extended period of time in a traditional ceramic pot known as a kame.

“The distilling process really never changed for 500 years,” says Kuba. “In the 15th century, Okinawa was a big trading port, so you had a lot of Europeans, Chinese and Japanese going through that small island, and during that trading phase awamori was given as a gift of hospitality to all different races and nationalities.

“Compared to sake and shochu or any distilled spirit, awamori is the purest form of alcohol. It is nautrally aged, not machine filtered, not mass produced, and contains no preservatives or additives. Sake is brewed and does spoil. You have to drink it young.”

“Awamori is deeply rooted in the Okinawan culture,” adds Kelly Asato Chee, general manager for Awamori Spirits. “In Okinawa, many of the households have one or more kame. They buy the awamori directly from their town distiller and age it in the kame. Everyday they remove the cap from the kame and gently stir the awamori which creates movement and allows the awamori to breathe. The longer the awamori is aged the smoother, crisper and more valuable it becomes.”

The final product can be enjoyed as a drink straight, over ice, diluted with water (the most popular) or mixed in a cocktail. And because awamori is handcrafted and naturally aged, and is made with the purest, finest ingredients, it leaves you with no headache or hangover.

“Randy was able to make connections and convince the distilleries in Okinawa to open up to U.S. markets which will ultimately benefit them and their industry, and it’s really a seminal moment for us in the beverage industry to see a new category born right now,” says Roberto Viernes, master sommelier and MidWeek the Weekend columnist. “In the case of awamori spirit, it really is a category itself with Dancing Sea and CraZcrane as a brand name. It’s a category that most people never heard of before simply because it wasn’t available to them in large amounts. It was such a closed industry.”

On the menu, awamori will fall under distilled spirits joining other liquors such as vodka, rum and tequila.

According to Kuba, there are 47 distilleries in Okinawa. Awamori Spirits works with 11 of them. Dancing Sea and CraZcrane are available in 750 ml bottles, retailing from about $20 to $70 a bottle.

“We have seven distinct flavors,” says Kuba. “It’s kind of like wine, there are some that are dry, some sweet, some really strong, and there are all different alcohol percentages as well.

Kelly Asato Chee, Randall Kuba and Frances Nakachi Kuba sample some awamori
Kelly Asato Chee, Randall Kuba and
Frances Nakachi Kuba sample some

“The CraZcrane is geared more for the younger taste, about 21 to 35 years. And the Dancing Sea is more for the sophisticated market. It’s aged a little more. It has a little more distinct taste. It’s more for the sophisticated palate and food pairings.”

The Dancing Sea line consists of four different tastes: Silver (25 percent alcohol, aged three years (cool filtered, blended), Gold (30 percent alcohol, aged five years cool filtered), Platinum (43 percent alcohol, aged three years), and Black (43 percent alcohol, aged 10 years).

And the CraZcrane line has three flavors: Silver (25 percent alcohol, aged two years, cool filtered), Gold (30 percent alcohol, aged three years, cool filtered), and Platinum (43 percent alcohol, aged one year).

MidWeek asked Viernes to sample the new Dancing Sea and CraZcrane awamori, and here’s what he had to say:

“I’ve had it in one of the mixed drinks and the mixability factor was very good. I also tasted it alone at room temperature, and then on ice, which is how they would traditionally drink it, and it was very good. It’s really well-crafted. You can tell it’s hand crafted.

“Some of it has almost a sake aromatic profile to it. The aromas are very delicate, but hugely impactful on the flavor. The flavors are quite intense.

“The CraZcrane line is more designed for mixing because the flavors are lighter and more delicate. The Dancing Sea line has more flavor to them, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be mixed. It’s just that they can be appreciated on their own.”

Kuba and his wife, Frances Nakachi Kuba, have been importing awamori into the U.S. for the past 12 years. Other companies have also been importing the distilled spirit. But until now, none has been

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