Distillery: Kumejima’s Kumesen Co.
Prefecture: Okinawa Prefecture, Kume Island
Available in USA: Yes (*)
Our newest Awamori review since Ryukyu Ohcho and Kikunotsu V.I.P. Gold, happily it’s the highest rated awamori to date as well. As the name of the distillery suggests, Kumejima’s awamori comes from Kume Island. Kumejima is located 60 miles west of of Naha. It’s picturesque location is ideal for making awamori due to it’s abundance of pure fresh water.
Kumesen Awamori is incredibly entertaining to drink. It was strong enough to have flavor but not over powering. It’s a bit earthy with a pepper kick that was interesting but not overwhelming in spice. The shochu ends with a bit of vanilla that rounds out the experience nicely. The distiller recommended this shochu neat, on the rocks, or with warm water. The starch like flavor is incredibly rewarding on the rocks during a hot humid day.
So you’ll notice that I put an asterisk next to the affirmative answer about this shochu being available in the United States. In the USA you can get an Awamori of the same name, but its a different bottle and a different proof. The Japanese Kumesen awamori comes in at 60 proof while the American bottle is 48 proof. This is odd because American tend to not prefer their alcohol watered down, and neither shochu or awamori is expensive to begin with. I have a suspicion that this has something to do with American import taxes as this isn’t the first awamori or shochu that I have seen with the alcohol content lowered, and 48 proof is unusually common among the Japanese imports. So all this being said, you can’t buy 60 proof KumeJima’s Kumesen awamori in America, but you can buy something that at a minimum is similar, and hopefully simply requires you to be a bit lighter in your helping of water or rocks. Astor Wines and Spirits carries the American version for $22.00 USD. For this price, its a great option given the limited number of awamori brands that are available in here.
Distillery: TARAGAWA SHUZO
Koji: Black Koji
Available in USA: Yes
Ryukyu Ohcho Awamori is another name that doesn’t translate fantastically into English. In Japanese, both u’s and o’s should be emphasized. This is classically spelled in english by adding a u after the vowel. In this case the distiller chose to use an h, and do so for only 1 of the 4 held vowels. We’ll follow the distiller’s spelling, but be prepared for subtle variation when coming across this awamori online or in menus.
Like most brands of awamori, Ryukyu Ohcho is made from Thai style long grain rice and black koji. The result is a flavor that is predictable for those who are familiar with awamori. The one unique trait of Ryukyu Ohcho is the fact that it is aged at least 5 years in clay pots. Though aging in other liquors tends to mellow the experience, the end result of Ryukyu Ohcho is a full flavor from start to finish. At times I picked up a dash of Jagermeister and I could really taste the rice in the finish. Taragawa Distillers recommends having Ryukyu with just water, but I found it enjoyable on the rocks.
Ryukyu Ohcho Awamori isn’t incredibly easy to find because outside of Zuisen, generally Awamori is even less common than shochu. It is carried by the large LA based distributor JFC. I’ve not found this awamori in any retail locations, either online or in person. The one location that does carry it is Shochu Bar Hatchan in Midtown Manhattan as they seem to carry almost all of the JFC brands. For those who bring their shochu back from Japan and like their shochu, this bottle is well worth being 1 of the 2 bottles you can bring through customs.
Distillery: YAMAKAWA SHUZO
Region: Ryukyu Islands
Available in USA: No
Sango Sho Awamori is produced by Yamakawa Shuzo. It’s located near wherethe Minna river empties into the East China Sea, in the town of Motobu Okinawa. This bucolic setting is the reason why Sango Sho Awamori is named after the Japanese term for coral reef.
Sango Sho Awamori is made using the classic ingredients of thai style long grain rice and black koji. Given this, it doesn’t venture far from classic awamori flavors. As Awamori goes, I would consider Sango Sho to be fairly smooth and easy to drink. This is due to it being aged 3 years. Normally aging for years can add additional nuances that are picked up from different types of wooden barrels. In this case Yamakawa chose to age Sango Sho in stainless steel, so the result is a relatively mild awamori. On Yamakawa Distillery’s website they describe Sango Sho as being ideal for people who are new to Awamori and popular with women in Japan. All this mildness being said, it should be realized that Sango Sho is 60 proof, which is significantly stronger than many types of shochu.
Sango Sho Awamori unfortunately seems to be unavailable in the United States. It seems to run about $19 in Japan. One thing to note, Yamakawa Distillery does offer tours of the their distilling house and they have many types of Awamori that have been aged far longer and far more premium than Sango Sho. I’ll deffinitely consider stopping here the next time I find myself in Okinanwa. Though a decent value at this price, given the 2 bottle limit to the number of bottles one can bring back from Japan on the airplane, there are probably other bottles more deserving of being in your top two. That said, if you are spending time in Japan, and are in the mood for Awamori, you could do far worse than Sango Sho Awamori.
Distillery: KIKUNOTSUYU SHUZO
Available in USA: No
Compared to the smooth drinking Tan Taka Tan Shiso Shochu and Tomino Houzan Shouchu reviewed recently, the full flavored Kikunotsuyu’s V.I.P Gold Awamori is a decidedly different drink. To understand Kikunotsuyu V.I.P. Gold, its good to understand Awamori. Awamori is much like Shochu with the only hard exception being that Awamori is usually made with long grain Thai style rice, and Shochu is generally made using Japanese rice. Beyond this, Awamori is traditionally made with Black Koji that is indigenous to Okinawa and is often aged.
Kikunotsuyu Shuzo is located on Miyako Island, about 400 miles east of Taipei, making it 3 times closer to Taipei than Tokyo. The consistent 73 degree temperature and humidity is said to aide in giving Kikunotsuyu its unique flavor. It is the only second generation awamori distillery and has been around for 85 years. The name comes from a story of a son who collected the dew of chrysanthemum in order to save his mother from sickness.
Though Kikunotsuyu V.I.P. Gold is made with rice, its warmth is more similar to drinking a whiskey. It’s initial rice based flavor at the tip of the tongue can not be mistaken but this quickly dissipates leaving you with a subtle burn that lingers like the peat of an Islay scotch. The aroma is best described as having starchy liquorice notes. With a bit of ice, this opens up into a wheat flavor. Unlike most shochus the subtle burn that exists when drank neat continues even when paired with water or ice.
Though lacking the depth of more expensive drinks, Kikunotsuyu V.I.P. Gold is still a satisfying drink. It’s reasonable price makes it a solid addition to a Awamori collection. Though technically listed as “not available in America” there is a retailer on Rakuten that is willing to ship to America. I’ve never tried this, but something tells me that this could be held up in customs. At the very least, you may have a small tariff to pay in order to accept your shipment. Mileage may vary. For those who like their whiskey neat, at $20 USD, Kikunotsuyu V.I.P. Gold can’t be beat.