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OneRum: One Man's Dream To Make Okinawa To The Rum World's New Caribbean


Okinawa is a set of islands off the southern coast of Japan. It is steeped in a deep local tradition, and often finds itself culturally distinct. Because of its geopolitical history, the system of islands typically finds itself a mix of numerous cultural influences - and yet, any material you could read about on Okinawa, as well as simply being there yourself, will quickly inform you that perhaps the best characterisation you could give it is that of the Ryukyu islands - the name and everything that comes with it, likely encapsulates most accurately what the island's people identify as and thus its cultural norms.

As far as alcoholic spirits go, Okinawa has its own local spirit - Awamori. Awamori in unique to the Ryukyu islands and is made from long grain indica rice (fermented and distilled once  and uses black koji mold) - which is most commonly found in Thailand. And in fact, the history of the spirit comes from the ancient trading ties between the Ryukyu Kingdom (what Okinawa was historically known as) and the Ayutthaya Kingdom (today Thailand). In Thailand, the equivalent drink is known a lao khao, and this exchange of cultures would have taken place in the 15th century when the Ryukyu Kingdom had served as a major trading point for Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, in the centuries since, Okinawans have tweaked the spirit making which has made it entirely unique to Okinawa.


Akira Nakazato. (Image Source: Nippon)


But this is not a story about Awamori - it's about one man's journey to establishing Okinawa and its islands as the rum world's new Caribbean.


“This project is connecting Okinawan sugar cane to the future,... It’s almost the same latitude as their famous rum production. I believe Okinawa can be a new sacred place for rum.” says Akira Nakazato, organiser of the OneRum project.

Awamori - A Sentimental Spirit

Akira Nakazato is the Master Distiller of the historic Mizuho Shuzo (Shuzo being distillery) - and perhaps what is most astonishing about Nakazato is not only his acknowledgement of the lacklustre state of Okinawa's alcohol trade but also his moderate temperament as to how Okinawa can find its way back into the cups of drinkers today. His initiatives have embodied a sort of calmness - an equanimity - that seems to both acknowledge the urgency but exudes realism in its feasibility.


Awamori is Okinawa if it were a spirit. (Image Source: Savvy Tokyo)


Okinawa's 600-year history of producing Awamori can sometimes feel overly entrenched in the dogma of its own producers - Awamori sales have been less than stellar and yet distillers in Okinawa continue to produce the rice spirit. “The older generation still loves awamori in Okinawa, but the younger generation not as much,” says Nakazato in an interview published by Wine Enthusiast. Yet the fact is that most Awamori producers are generations-old houses and thus seem to refuse to acknowledge the future at hand, almost as if an admittance to the waning popularity of Awamori is equivalent to denying its own history and by extension its importance.

Certainly this is no fate sealed - many Awamori producers are getting creative with trying to find a way to re-popularise the spirit. 2022 marked the 50th anniversary of Okinawa's inclusion to Japan, which in turn saw a surge of media interest in the island's culture. As a result, several drama programs were even set with Okinawa in the backdrop - public interest in Awamori heightened as a result of riding the wave. And yet it seems that this is not a tale untold before - Nippon reports that in 2001, the same phenomenon had occured when local Japanese television had aired a drama that had also been set in Okinawa. And while Awamori sales would spike into 2004, it would begin to come down over the next one and a half decades.


Mizuho Shuzo's Tenryu-Kura, which translates as "storehouses of heavenly dragons", which tells you just how elevated the status of Awamori is in Okinawa.

Changing With The Times At Okinawa's Historic Distillery

Nakazato's Mizuho Shuzo is no exception where it comes to Awamori's outlook. The distillery is the oldest Awamori producer in Shuri, once the imperial capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom (today it is known as Naha), and second oldest across Okinawa. Mizuho Shuzo had been established in 1848 AD, the same year Ryukyu's new King Sho Tai had ascended the throne - and thus was a cherished part of the royal family. Today it remains one of only a handful of distilleries surviving from that era, and is particularly known for its aged Awamori known as Kusu. Unsurprisingly for a distillery to have lasted that long, it has had to embrace change - from setting up a OEM distillery in Taiwan producing various spirits for private and corporate customers, to more recently producing Awamori based gin and bitters, which encouragingly has been met with positive international feedback.


Nakazato has constantly found innovative ways to keep Awamori relevant.


He's even partnered with renown Japanese bartender Shingo Gokan, of award-winning cocktail bar SG Club and Sober Company, to produce an Awamori-base Kokuto liqueur (Kokuto being Okinawan Black Sugar) named Kokuto de Lequio (which we reviewed here!).

“Throughout our history, we have always adapted to changing circumstances. Our aim is to use our skills in distilling in a way that matches the needs of the times. This attitude is an essential part of our identity.” says Nakazato, who has forged a reputation for himself helming Mizuho's "frontier spirits" initiatives. 

And while so much of the focus where it comes to Okinawa's spirits scene surrounds Awamori, reasonably so for its historical importance, yet another key agricultural produce seems often overlooked - sugarcane.

When Life Gives You Brown Sugar, Make Rum

Okinawa is also well-known for its brown sugar - a deeply earthy, malty, toffee-like dense and darkly colour sugar that comes from the island's sugarcane, said to carry a myriad of health benefits, and is often branded and sold as Okinawan Black Sugar (known locally as Kokuto). This specialty sugar is produced by long hours of boiling down sugarcane juice until a black syrup emerges, that is then left to cool and harden into a dry sugar. It's one of the island's most popular produce, with many tourists typically carrying some back in tow, and even around East Asia, it is touted for its quality, benefits and unique flavour. 



On top of brown sugar, Okinawa also produces the more common white sugar that is typically used for all manners of food products and cooking. This common sugar is produced in a fashion far more similar to an industrial process that befits the commercial commodity produced and used around the world - nothing particularly artisanal to be had here. 

And as a result, Okinawa's largest produce by acreage is actually sugarcane, as a result of the sugar trade.

Yet, as far as popularity goes, while the Okinawan specialty brown sugar is a relatively popular produce from the island complex (up until the Covid pandemic ceased all tourism), white sugar has not been very much in demand as a result of health consciousness and the availability of artificial sweeteners. And even as demand for Okinawa's sugars have remained weak, the national government is said to continue subsidising sugarcane harvesting with the view to even increase production, all in a bid to create jobs in Okinawa and incentivise locals to stay put on the island - largely a matter of geopolitical rationale.



As a result, Nippon newspaper reports that thousands of tons of sugar sit in warehouse stockpiles each year, with more added every year. With such excesses of sugarcane derived sugar, an enterprising Nakazato would figure that he could perhaps apply his distilling expertise to creating Okinawa rum. After all, the saying "where there is sugarcane, there is rum" is an incredibly popular adage where it comes to the cane spirit. 

This decision had fortuitously coincided with a massive uptick in demand for high quality rum in recent years. The initiative took off quickly and Nakazato began to get a sense that he had something with serious potential on his hands. He would launch the One Rum project in November 2020.



Establishing A New Place Of Origin, Terroir Included

For starters, Nakazato had wanted to focus on the brown sugar that was filling up Okinawa's warehouses - it was not only unique to Okinawa, but could demonstrate the differences in terroir from across Okinawa's chain of islands (for example, Iheya brown sugar is said to be cleaner, whilst Hateruma's is said to be earthier). Nakazato would source brown sugar from 8 islands making up Okinawa - Kohama, Ie, Iriomote, Tarama, Aguni, Hateruma, Yonaguni and Iheya. He would then dissolve them separately in water and then ferment them.

According to Nakazato, each island has its own sugarcane varieties and also uses different methods to produce its brown sugar, not to mention varying microclimates and terroir. Consequently, Nakazato had wanted to demonstrate the complexities and nuances of Okinawa's terroir by first producing a series of eight white rums, each made from the brown sugar from a single island, together forming OneRum's Single Island Series. Each bottle comes with gorgeous label art paying homage to an aspect about the island whose rum it contains - the Yonaguni rum features local horse herds grazing, whilst the Iheya rum features a devotee seeking enlightenment in the island's Kumaya Cave, which as legend has it is home to the gods.



To say that OneRum's Single Island series has been successful would be an absolute understatement - most releases numbered in only the hundreds of bottles and were sold out almost instantly.

Nakazato has not stopped there - with his latest OneRum The Okinawa Islands Rum which is a blend of rums from all eight islands, serving as a holistic representation of Okinawa's rum profile. He's also soon to launch a One Island Series which will see the use of sugarcane juice from Mizuho Shuzo's own plot in place of brown sugar, with the hopes of producing an agricultural rum similar to the French-style Rhum Agricole of Martinique. Further along, expect to see aged versions of these Okinawan rums as Nakazato has already begun the work of kickstarting the laborious and time intensive ageing of these cane spirits - he's even gotten oak barrels from an apparently well-known Japanese distillery!


The More You Know, The More You Realise You Don't Know

While Nakazato has been able to hit the ground running with the OneRum project fairly quickly, with his single island white rums having hit the market with encouraging reception, Nakazato has also found himself having to backtrack somewhat.

In connecting with locals in the process of the project, Nakazato admits that there is still much he does not know about sugarcane production - but don't put it past Nakazato to sit idly by. He's decided that the best way for him to learn is to dive headfirst into the deep end - with the help of various advisors from local experts, agencies and academia, Nakazato has begun growing sugarcane himself. It is from this foray where the One Island Series' agricultural rum will stem from.



Thus far Nakazato has grown three different varieties of sugarcane, all of which has been planted and harvested by hand, with Nakazato himself keeping a watchful eye. 

With a spirit as resolute and enterprising as Nakazato, not to be held down by the binds of tradition, yet constantly willing to push the envelope where it comes to placing Okinawa on the global stage, you can bet that much more is to come. For now, Nakazato's OneRum might still be an insider's rum localised to Japan, but don't be surprised when it takes the world by storm in the coming years. With the likes of OneRum, don't count Okinawa out just yet.


Source: OneRum, Nippon.com, Wine Enthusiast.