The Modern Method

Washing rice

Washing rice
Washing rice

 

Awamori is made from rice from Thailand. Usually crushed rice is used, but some distilleries use whole grain. The grain in washed, and steeped in water. The washing used to be done in bamboo strainers called ba-ki in the Okinawa dialect, but washing rice has become automated in recent years.

Steaming Rice

Steaming Rice
Steaming Rice

An automatic drum-shaped koji-making machine is employed to wash the rice, steep it, steam it, mix it with seed koji mold and adjust the temperature of the mash. Traditionally, the washed rice was steamed in a container, a round, wooden tub called kushiki for between one hour and 90 minutes. Holes were made in the tub with a stick called chibiku so that the rice was steamed evenly. The rice was mixed, and further crushed with a paddle called i-ze. Since everything was done by hand, the process had to be carried out several times.

 

Mixing and cooling koji mold (Kachai)

Mixing and cooling koji mold (Kachai)
Mixing and cooling koji mold (Kachai)

The steamed rice is moved onto the koji shelf and spread out on straw mats. It is then mixed with seed koji mold to even out the whole koji rice. This process is called Kachai.

Most awamori makers in Okinawa now use an automatic koji-making machine, which consists of a rotating drum. The washing, steeping, and steaming of the seed koji mold and temperature control are all automated. Thanks to the installment of ventilated koji shelves, which provide ventilation by sensing automatically if the temperature of the koji mold has risen above the regulated temperature, the work process traditionally called 'nikubuku'-including spreading the koji rice on straw mats, mixing, unfolding and heaping up-has been simplified and become less troublesome. In addition, there is thorough, computerized quality control, which has enabled the level of koji-making to be maintained at a determined standard.

Fermentation
Fermentation

Fermentation

Though some awamori makers today still use a traditional pot-still for fermentation, most makers use stainless steel tanks. The period for fermentation is about 10 to 14 days and cold water is used to maintain the temperature of the mash below 30 degrees Celsius. Many makers still use a traditional paddle to adjust the fermentation of the mash and the chief distillers take as much care over the awamori-making as mothers do with their babies. The way the koji generates bubbles during fermentation is a reminder that sake really is a living thing.

Distilling

Distillery
Distillery

The most popular distilling machine today is the horizontal cyclical distilling machine. The old pot stills are now rarely seen, except on the remote islands. The first drops of distilled liquor have an alcohol content of about 70%. This is called shoryu (first distillate) or hanazaki (flower awamori). As the alcohol content becomes less concentrated, the liquor is called churyu (middle distillate) and the last drops are called koryu, suedare or masa (last distillate).
Traditionally, distilling was done in large copper pot stills with a 108-126 liter capacity. A metal or wooden container was placed on the pot, and a tin pipe ran from the top of the container to a cooling device.

Storing (Storing by maker)

Storing (Storing by maker)
Storing (Storing by maker)

Most makers used to store awamori in traditional earthenware pots in the past, but the mainstream today is to store it in stainless steel or enamelware tanks. With the recent kusu boom, however, storage in earthenware pots is being reconsidered and some awamori makers age their product in limestone caves. Using barrels for storing is also now popular and many makers store their awamori in the barrels used for sherry, the oak barrels used for whisky, and so on. The mash lees left after distillation are often used as feed for pigs or as fertilizer, but some makers these days produce and sell mash vinegar as a by-product.

Stainless Steel & Enamelware Tanks

Stainless Steel & Enamelware Tanks
Stainless Steel & Enamelware Tanks

Most distilleries today store their awamori in stainless tanks for maturing. The tanks are preferred because the taste of awamori is guaranteed to be preserved. There are many distillers who also use enamelware tanks. They have been used longer than stainless steel ones, so in many cases they contain vintage kusu.

Earthenware Pots

Earthenware Pots
Earthenware Pots

In recent days, a growing number of distillers have re-adopted the traditional method of storing awamori in large earthenware pots for aging and shipping it as kusu. This kind of pot was first brought over to Ryukyu from Siam (now Thailand) in the 14th or 15th century. Many of those Siamese pots have been unearthed from the ruins of Shuri Castle and Nakijin Castle, indicating that the pots were being used at that time. Later, Ryukyu's contacts with Siam ceased, and the lord of Shimazu attacked Ryukyu in the 16th century. It was around that time that the people of Ryukyu began to produce their own porcelain.
Those old kilns became known by the names of Wakuta, Chibana and Takaraguchi and they later merged to become Tsuboya-yaki. Around that time, the distillation methods for awamori were developed, and awamori-making became quite popular. Ryukyu nanban pots were very suitable for storing awamori.
But much of Okinawa was reduced to rubble during World War II, and homes, distilleries and pots were all destroyed. Very little awamori matured for more than 100 years remains. The Ryukyu nanban pots contain a lot of iron, and the higher the firing temperature, the more suitable the pot is for storing kusu. Many potters produce nanban pots with gas kilns as well as ascending kilns. There are also many people who use nanban pots for storing kusu at their home, and they are also becoming popular as items of interior decoration.

Limestone Caves

Limestone Caves
Limestone Caves

Rows of stone jars can also be seen in some limestone caves. The temperature inside caves remains constant all year round, and they are said to be a perfect place for maturing awamori.
Limestone caves are abundant in Okinawa. Today awamori is kept in caves in Kin Town in the northern part of Okinawa's main island, in Tamagusuku Town in the south, and also on Miyako Island. Tourists often purchase awamori at different distilleries, and have it kept in a cave for three years or more for maturing. They then receive their awamori as kusu after it reaches maturity. This unique system has been attracting a lot of interest.

Barrels

 Barrels
Barrels

A quiet recent boom is for distillers to store the awamori in oak barrels. The awamori stored this way is said to mature with a smooth texture and acquires an improved aroma rather like whisky. Oak barrel-stored awamori first hit the market around 35 years ago. It did not fall into the category of awamori, but was classified as a 'miscellaneous liquor'. It did not sell well at all at first, but its rich aroma and special barrel-matured taste gradually won acclaim. Distilleries suddenly began to employ oak barrels much more. Today, awamori is matured in bourbon, whisky, and sherry barrels imported from all over the world and shipped as kusu. There has also been a recent increase in the number of shochu makers introducing this storage method.

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