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Zanpa & Uminokuni Awamori: A Rice Spirit Born From A 600-Year Old Romance Between Thailand & Okinawa

 

 

Okinawa isn’t really Japan.

Well, not at least until the sands of 1879 when the Japanese empire reached out to grasp the independent Ryukyu Kingdom and rechristen it as Okinawa Prefecture, that these islands begrudgingly folded into the Japanese narrative. But if you wander along the bustling markets of the capital, Naha, or trace the emerald waters lapping the tropical Ishigaki beaches – just a short boat ride from Taiwan – you’d quickly realise that Okinawa is a place that is profoundly distinct in soul, history and influences from other cultures.

 

 

For centuries, Ryukyu, as Okinawa was once called, thrived as a vital entrepot, situated at a strategic crossroads between Japan, China, Korea and Southeast Asia. It was a place where Chinese silk threads and exotic Southeast Asian spices intertwined with Japanese court culture. The legacy of these times lives on in the architecture of Shuri Castle, where Chinese dragons perch atop traditional Japanese timberwork, and in the haunting melodies strains of the traditional sanshin instrument. The influences of this period can also be seen in traditional Okinawan spirits like the awamori .

 

 

Legally, awamori is classified as a type of shochu , but is historically a distinct class of spirit. Made from long-grain indica rice, awamori’s story began in the 1400s when merchants from Siam – what we know today as Thailand – introduced their rice and distillation technology to Ryukyuans. This aromatic spirit quickly became embraced by the Ryukyu court, the noble classes and the wider populace.

 

The Kingdom of Siam, painted by Johannes Vingboons in the 1600s.

 

Awamori continues to be made in Okinawa today with the same techniques and rice from Thailand. It is also a symbol of cultural exchange between Thailand and Okinawa that remains just as alive today as it was 600 years ago. 

Authentic awamori producers would often indicate the geographically-protected term "Ryukyu Awamori" (琉球泡盛) on their bottles. This is a distinction protected by law in Japan all other countries that are signatories of the TRIPS Agreement, just as Champagne and Cognac are protected by law around the world. Only awamori distilled, aged, and bottled in Okinawa Prefecture can earn the status of "Ryukyu Awamori".

 

 

Now, the Okinawa Prefectural Government has recently taken steps to bring this traditional spirit to a global audience. Focusing on Zanpa and Uminokuni, two well-known awamori brands, they're rolling out four aged expressions in various Asian markets, starting with Singapore.

 

Sommelier Thomas Ling took us through an insightful showcase of awamori at RPM by D.Bespoke.

 

The official launch is set for next month, and you can expect to find these spirits gracing the menus bars and restaurants in Singapore such as Waku Ghin and RPM by D.Bespoke.

 

How is Awamori made?

 

Specifically, it's crafted from long-grain indica rice imported from Thailand, not the shorter japonica rice commonly used in Japan. Black koji mold is also used; unlike white and yellow koji that are used for regular shochu and sake, black koji is hardier and able to ferment even in Okinawa's warm climate. During this process, it also produces high levels of citric acid that protects the mixture from unwanted bacteria.

 

Black koji (Source: Denen Shuzo)

 

The fermented mixture is distilled once in a pot still.

 

 

Most awamori are unaged. However, more premium ranges of awamori are likely to be aged in earthenware jars, earning the title "kusu" (old wine) after three years. And unlike aging in oak which imparts bolder flavours, aging in earthenware jars helps to round off the edges and mellow the awamori. Interestingly, awamori continues to evolve even after it is bottled.

 

 

Most awamori are typically bottled at an ABV of about 25% to 35%. In fact, a couple of years back we’ve tasted the Zanpa White that comes in at 25% ABV .

 

 

These four expressions presented by the Okinawa Prefectural Government are all considered kusu, and bottled at a more generous ABV of 43% which is on the higher end of the range.

It’s worth noting that the Zanpa brand is crafted by a single distillery – Higa Shuzo Co. Ltd, while the Uminokuni brand is composed of distillates from 45 distilleries that are blended together by the Okinawa Distillery Cooperative Association. If you’re familiar with Scotch whisky, it’s almost like we’re comparing single malts versus blended whisky.

Zanpa and Higa Shuzo

Zanpa awamori is produced by Higa Shuzo Co. Ltd, a distillery founded shortly after World War II in 1948. The aftermath of the war left Okinawa in a tough spot, with the island's residents facing severe challenges in rebuilding their lives. Okinawa was left with a shattered infrastructure, with most homes, farms and culturally significant sites destroyed. Among these challenges was the proliferation of poorly made moonshine, which present serious health risks, including blindness or even death.

It's in this context that Higa Shuzo Co. Ltd emerged. Tacorakichi Higa left his job as a teacher to start an awamori distillery to preserve the traditional methods of awamori production. His mission was also humble yet vital: to produce a spirit that was both safe and of good quality.

 

 

In 1980, the brand name Zanpa was adopted, written with the kanji (残波), which translates to "residual waves" – carrying the poetic imagery of ceaseless waves on the beach. There is also a beach in Okinawa of the same name.

We're exploring two expressions: the Zanpa 12 Years Old, which is bottled at 43% ABV, and the Zanpa 24 Years Old, coming in at 41% ABV.

 

Zanpa 12 Years Old Awamori, 43% ABV – Review

 

Tasting notes

Nose: Bright, aromatic and mineral. It’s marked by an upfront sweetness from kokuto (Okinawan brown sugar) and caramel, intertwined with a refreshing mellow grassiness – to be specific lemongrass and the mild sweetness of pandan. There’s also a distinct brininess that reminds me of sea breeze. A light cocoa powder undertone.

Palate: Sweet, vibrant and really flavourful! It’s also really grassy and lightly vegetal, much like a rhum agricole but enriched with a foundation of brown sugar and sweet cereal notes. It’s remarkably briny and somewhat nutty too. And as it evolves we get some spices culminating in a light “karakuchi” mouth puckering dryness and a light peppery note.

Finish: Rather clean and brief. It leaves a lingering sweetness of light brown sugar paired with a very subtle bittersweet dark chocolate note. There’s a bit of pepper and dryness felt in the back of the throat but it’s overall much, much more approachable than a typical Scotch whisky.

 

My Thoughts

Very flavourful, vibrant and lively. This higher ABV variant of the Zanpa embodies a lot of that agricultural character, with a very substantial influence of the natural fragrance of Thai rice captured in the spirit.

It does have a slight bite towards the end but that sensation is akin to a karakuchi you might get from drinking a dry sake. It’s on the whole really approachable, akin to a gentler 30% ABV shochu rather than a 40% ABV Scotch.

My Rating: 7.5/10

Zanpa 24 Years Old Awamori, 41% ABV – Review

 

Tasting notes

Nose: Whereas the 12 years old was lively and flavour-forward, this presents a more subdued and refined aromatic profile. It’s got a creamy essence at the forefront, vanilla and a subtle nuttiness, plus the warmth of lightly toasted popcorn and sweetness of Rice Krispies.

Palate: Remarkably round, balanced and supple. Delicate sweetness with and a luxurious, oily texture, very well integrated with a blend of caramel, roasted walnuts and general earthiness. There’s a natural sweetness of grain along with the sweet-briny character of coconut water intertwined with a light earthy umami of braised shiitake mushrooms.

Finish: Soft and understated, with a gentle cream custard note and a layered sweetness of Chinese sea coconut soup.

 

My Thoughts

This is an indisputable crowd favourite. It’s immediately noticeable to everyone how aging the Zanpa for twice as long could lead to something a lot more complex, smooth and rounded in the tasting experience.

The pronounced earthiness of this spirit would pair very well with roasted or grilled meats – with the earthiness enhancing the umami qualities of the dish.

That said, I’m a bit of a sucker for the bright and lively Zanpa 12, it’s upfront character and grassiness. I even enjoy the slight spiciness that it carries. Still, I’m obliged to give this a slightly higher score because it is objectively very well put together, and wins over many more drinkers than its younger sibling.

My Rating: 8/10

Uminokuni - Okinawa Distillery Cooperative Association

Uminokuni (海乃邦) is a brand owned by the Okinawa Distillery Cooperative Association, a collective founded with the aim to preserve the heritage of and promote awamori.

 

 

The first batch of Uminokuni was released in 1987 during the Kaiho National Athletic Meet held to commemorate the 25 th anniversary of the return of Okinawa to Japan. The spirit is a blend of distillates from around 45 awamori distilleries that are part of the Association and appears to only ever be released as a kusu (aged awamori).

We’ll have a taste of both the Uminokuni 10 Years Old and Uminokuni 24 Years Old, both of which come in at 43% ABV.

 

Uminokuni 10 Years Old Awamori, 43% ABV – Review

 

Tasting notes

Nose: Balanced but rather intricate on the nose. Initial sweetness of plums is joined by aromatic pandan leaves that give it a grassy, green backdrop. There’s a vegetal sweetness reminiscent of Korean pickled radish, along with light floral notes.

The individual notes are less pronounced here compared to the Zanpa 12, but it offers more dimensionality - a more nuanced but indistinct array of aromas.

Palate: Rather straightforward here. Opens with a ginjo-ka sweetness (characteristic of a clear sake), a rice-light sweetness coupled with a simple brown sugar sweetness. There’s as gradual developing bitterness that starts like grapefruit pith before becoming a distinct ethanol bitterness.

Finish: Rather austere, with a drying sensation that envelops the mouth along with a hint of nutty, musky essence of raw brown rice.

 

My Thoughts

This presents a milder, and easier to drink alternative to the Zanpa 12, even though both are about the same age and with the same ABV. Sweetness is more pronounced here but less complex. It’s evident that the blender has smoothened the edges of each distillate to create a more rounded profile.

This one is more accessible and easier to enjoy, but the Zanpa 12 still remains my preference for its clearer definition and more vibrant character. I’d also have liked this a lot more if it didn’t have that bitterness as it develops, that detracts slightly from the overall experience.

Rating: 6/10

Uminokuni 24 Years Old Awamori, 43% ABV – Review

 

Tasting notes

Nose: Notably more expressive and richer than the 10-year old counterpart. Opens with a soothing sweetness of vanilla, caramel and familiar brown sugar. There’s an aromatic scent of steamed banana leaf and jasmine rice. It’s also rather candied and fruity in a way – it has a playful funkiness akin to overripe lychees.

Palate: Rich and sweet, with a substantial texture. Once again brown sugar, but joined by some sweet oxidised notes of raisins and dried cranberries, this sweetness balanced by an earthy bitterness reminiscent of black tea and a subtle dryness that gradually intensifies towards the end.

Finish: A soft echos of caramel accompanied by light indistinct nuttiness.

 

My Thoughts

Compelling and flavourful, and markedly more complex than the 10 Years Old version, with its well-rounded profile with unusual notes of overripe fruits. However, when juxtaposed with the Zanpa 24, it appears slightly less polished, bearing a discernible bite towards the end.

The blend, derived from 45 different awamori distilleries, displays a broad spectrum of flavours and at times these seem to blend into a less defined whole.

I would imagine that it is a challenge for the blender to have to work with 45 different distillates. A more selective approach where only distillates that would integrate well together are blended might yield an awamori with a sharper definition. That’s just my speculation! But at the end of the day, the Okinawa Distillery Cooperative Association is likely to deem it necessary as a symbolic gesture to incorporate the work of all 45 distilleries into this expression.

My Rating: 7/10

Overall Thoughts

This has been an eye-opening and educational journey!

Comparing the Zanpa with the Uminokuni really does feel like comparing the individuality of a single distiller (Higa Shuzo) against the harmony of a spirit blend (Uminokuni). If you’re familiar with whisky, it really is similar to comparing single malts against whisky blends.

The Zanpa series stands out with a clear direction and robust personality. The Zanpa 12 has a lovely, vibrant essence with its lively, agricultural zest. Transitioning to the Zanpa 24 was like stepping into a surprisingly different experience. The extra duration of aging has given it elegance, a nuanced earthiness and a smoothness of character that makes it a crowd favourite. Both Zanpa expressions are very memorable to me.

 

 

On the flip side, Uminokuni doesn't quite strike with the same distinctiveness as Zanpa. It's pleasant and approachable at first sip, but it doesn’t have the same defined character that makes Zanpa so memorable. The gap of difference between Uminokuni 10 and 24 doesn't feel as drastic as the change observed between the two Zanpa age statements. That said, both Uminokuni expressions do express a distinct nutty, earthiness that would make for a great pairing with hearty dishes. 

Remarkably, despite the ABV hovering around the 41 to 43% mark, all these spirits boast an approachability that's somewhat unexpected, especially when you compare them to the more intense spirits from the West or the potent baijiu. And while most awamori producers like to hover between 25% to 35% ABV, the decision to bottle these Zanpa and Uminokui at higher ABVs is the right decision without a shadow of a doubt. The Japanese appreciate nuance and subtle flavours, but drinkers from other parts of the world are likely to prefer much bolder flavours, and able to accept a more powerful spirit. I, for one, enjoy these higher proof awamoris a lot better than those that hover around 30% ABV.

 

 

For those in Singapore eager to explore these premium awamori themselves, both the Uminokuni 10 and Zanpa 12 are set to retail for S$165.00 a bottle, while the more aged expressions, Uminokuni 24 and Zanpa 24, will be available at S$380.00 each.

Look for them in established bars and restaurants, including Japanese venues like Waku Ghin and RPM by D.Bespoke. It's a unique opportunity to explore the rich tapestry of Okinawan culture through its most celebrated spirit.

@CharsiuCharlie