The World of the Awamori Industry

The World of the Awamori Industry
The World of the Awamori Industry

During the Ryukyu Kingdom period, which lasted 450 years, only 40 distillers in the districts of Torihori, Akata and Sakiyama in Shuri were permitted to produce awamori. But after the Meiji Government asserted its authority over Ryukyu to abolish the kingdom and Ryukyu became Okinawa Prefecture in 1879, the number of distilleries increased dramatically, reaching 760 by 1898. Nearly 30% of the distilleries were based in Shuri, and the ones in local areas were producing mostly shochu using sweet potatoes and millet. However, hikes in the clearance tax gradually forced distilleries to go under. By 1908, the number of distilleries had been reduced to 167. In an effort to overcome the harsh situation, the distillers joined forces that year to establish the Awamori Distillers Association. But it was soon disbanded due to discord between its members. The Ryukyu Distillers Union, the predecessor of the current association, was founded in 1911.

The nationwide recession at the end of the Taisho era and in the early Showa era (1910s and 20s) also forced many distilleries to close. The number had dropped to 82 by 1931.

In 1928, the Okinawa Awamori Distillers League was founded, bringing together distillers throughout the prefecture. Awamori was promoted throughout the nation, and shipment of awamori outside Okinawa showed a rapid increase in and after 1933. But when the Sino-Japanese war broke out in 1937, followed by the Pacific War in 1941, awamori was regarded as a luxury item, and hardly any distilled liquor was made until after the war.

Much of Okinawa was destroyed during the Allied invasion. Okinawa was then controlled by the US military following the war. The US civil administration in Okinawa opened five state-operated distilleries in 1946. In 1949, establishment of private distilleries was permitted, and distilling licenses were issued to 79 distilleries on the Okinawan main island, 63 on Miyako Island, and 44 on the Yaeyama Islands. At the time of the Okinawa reversion in 1972, the number had been reduced to 60, but shipment peaked. The whiskey boom resulted in reduced shipments, but they began to grow again from 1983. There are now 47 distilleries in Okinawa (2002 figure), but shipments of awamori have increased sixteenfold since 1973.

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Distillery techniques were first developed in the Mesopotamian Civilization around 3500 B.C. Distilled liquor was spread both westward and eastward by the Greek philosopher Aristotle .
 There are four theories regarding the origin of the name 'awamori.' The first theory concerns the main ingredient. Although Thai rice is used today, millet was once widely cultivated, even in Okinawa, and it was used to produce awamori. Millet is called 'awa' in Japanese and 'awa-mori' literally means 'a heap of millet'.
Traditional Distillery machines
Year Major Events Connected with Awamori and Shochu