Awamori is similar to mainland Japanese Shōchū: a rice-based clear alcoholic drink, but usually with more flavours and fragrances retained than in European vodka. Shōchū, by the way, is not limited to rice; potato-based variants are very popular too.
Okinawa has long been a trading point between east-Asian powers. Awamori is different from mainland Shōchū in that it uses long-grain Thai rice imported from south Asia rather than the short-grain Japonica rice. Also, good quality Awamori is often aged rather than drunken fresh, and gives it a mellower, fuller taste. Shōchū is almost always 20-25% alcohol, while Awamori can range from 20% up to 50% or more.
Perhaps the best way to drink Awamori is to cut it with hot or cold water. Hot water may sound odd for a subtropical island chain but it brings out the flavour and is very relaxing in the evening, with stars shining above and a cool breeze coming in from the Pacific.
The five-year old is a little sweet and obviously strong. The alcohol flavour dominates and it's really not much different from a middling-quality vodka. If I drink this at all it's preferably as a mixer, not just with water. The eight-year old is much better balanced. Rather thick, sweet flavour with a heady nose. It goes down a treat.
The ten year-old is far more subtle. There's less flavour all around but also less alcohol so the resulting balance is great. Hardly sweet at all, and with a very delicate fragrance. Cut this one just a little, and sip. It's delicious; by far the best of the three.
Seems to me there's a parallel between beer and spirits, in that dark, flavourful beers can support — indeed demand — higher alcohol content to achieve a good balance, while pale, light beers are best with much less alcohol. A stout or a Belgian dark beer can easily have 7-8% without feeling the least bit overpowering, while many classical light beers are best at half that.
In the same way, Whisky, Rum and flavoured vodkas work really well at around 40-50% or so. But subtle spirits such as Shōchū and Awamori are at their best well below 30%. Neat vodka has use only as a liquor base or drink mixer, of course, and doesn't really fit this classification.
It really hit me how much the alcohol content plays a part in the overall impression of these three samples. If you're looking to try some Awamori, it may be worth keeping this in mind.
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