Painted in a musky shade of rose and decorated with bohemian knick-knacks, Bambi, a tiny sliver of a bar, could be in Paris; except when we sit down, we’re given tall glasses of awamori mixed with ice-cold water before we’ve uttered a word.
“Mensore!” the bar’s patrons cheer, when they realise we’re from out of town.
There’s little doubt now that I’m in Okinawa—mensore means ‘welcome' in the Okinawan dialect, and awamori is the prefecture’s appellation-controlled spirit. No alcohol made outside of Okinawa—in fact, none outside the 47 pre-approved distilleries in the region—can be called awamori.
“Awa means foam, and mori means an accumulation,” says Hayashi Nakazato, director of Kamimura Shuzo, an awamori distillery founded in 1882. He explains that before the invention of alcohol meters, distillers used to assess the level of alcohol in awamori by pouring it from a small spout at a considerable height, and watch how many bubbles formed in the cup—the more bubbles, the higher the alcohol content.
This liquor is often confused with shochu, another Japanese alcohol that is distilled, but several qualities set awamori apart, which has been immortalised in its appellation of origin, a certification given by the World Trade Organisation. The appellation states that awamori must be made in Okinawa prefecture, use rice as its only base material, and black koji (mould) as its fermentation starter (as opposed to white or yellow koji common in sake-making).
In Okinawa today, awamori is so popular it’s often just called sake, or shima, meaning island. Okinawans are proud of their differences from mainland Japan, which is understandable, as they weren’t officially a part of Japan until the late 1800s. “Okinawa has a long and close history with the rest of Asia,” says Nakazato.