All about awamori, rice spirit from Okinawa that’s new to Hong Kong restaurants

Ku-suya Rakuen in Causeway Bay and Yardbird in Sheung Wan serve the drink, made from Thai rice, neat, with mixers and in cocktails, and have paired some of the concoctions with food

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 June, 2016, 6:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 June, 2016, 4:58pm

Yardbird, the popular yakitori restaurant in Sheung Wan, is known for its wide range of Japanese liquors such as umeshu (plum wine), sake, shochu and Japanese whisky, many of which feature in the inventive cocktails. While Hong Kong diners are generally familiar with these drinks, the restaurant recently has started to make cocktails with a lesser-known Japanese spirit, awamori.

Unique to Okinawa, awamori is hard to find outside Japan. Elliot Faber, Yardbird’s beverage director, explains: “Awamori is a protected appellation distillate produced in Japan’s 47th prefecture of Okinawa. Rather than being simply fermented from Japanese rice as in sake production or being fermented and then distilled from multiple ingredients ranging form corn to barley and soba as in shochu production. Awamori is distilled exclusively from Thai rice.”

About as close to Hong Kong as it is to Tokyo, Okinawa was known as the Ryukyu Kingdom and separate from mainland Japan, until the 19th century, so many of Okinawa’s traditions come from other parts of Asia. Add to that its subtropical weather and beautiful beaches and even Japanese people see the archipelago as a little different from the rest of the country.

It’s these idiosyncrasies that caught the attention of Yardbird’s co-owner and executive chef Matt Abergel, who, along with Faber, travelled to Okinawa recently to learn more about its food and culture.

“It’s the taste of the Hawaii of Japan – that was the inspiration,” says Abergel of their new awamori cocktail, named Okinawa Express. With pineapple juice, lime, Okinawa black sugar, black sugar shochu and aged awamori, Abergel says “The goal for the cocktail and our service of awamori is to make it accessible”.

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As a distilled beverage, similar in production method to vodka, whisky or rum, awamori’s alcohol content is higher than fermented alcohols such as wine or sake, and can take a bit of getting used to. Cocktails are therefore a good way to get acquainted with the drink.

“Depending on your favourite international spirit, it may surprise to know that there are styles of awamori that a newcomer to the category may be able to familiarise themselves with,” says Faber.

As with many spirits, awamori can also be aged, which will affect its flavour.

Faber says, “Awamori has a unique bright although earthy terroir to it. Sometimes aged in ex-bourbon casks or hand-crafted ceramic urns, awamori can range from round and vanillic when aged in barrels to having a grassy or yoghurt character if it is bottled young or aged in ceramic. This will all depend on ageing methods and alcohol strength. The results can yield a fresh, lean spirit or something more rich and savoury [to] the palate.”

The awamori used in the Okinawa Express is Kura, made by Helios, a 55-year-old distillery in Nago, almost right in the middle of Okinawa island. It is aged for three years in new American oak barrels, giving it a fuller body and creamy notes. Helios is one of more than 50 awamori distilleries in Okinawa prefecture, and despite being quite young (a few that date back to the 19th century are still in operation today), it produces a wide range of products – awamori aged in classic ceramic urns, steel tanks, French and American oak, as well as fruit liqueurs, rum (using local sugarcane) and craft beer – and has become one of the few more recognisable awamori brands in Hong Kong.

Ku-suya Rakuen, an Okinawan izakaya in Causeway Bay, also serves Helios’s Kura. The izakaya is part of En Group, a restaurant group founded by Hong Kong brothers Peter Hung-yan and Raymond Hung-tat Ng, who grew up in Okinawa.

There are more than a dozen different awamori available by the glass in Ku-suya Rakuen, and they are traditionally drunk neat, on ice or with still water. There are more modern mixers including soda water and juice from the shiquasa, a tart citrus fruit native to the islands.

In true izakaya style, the food is just as important at Ku-suya Rakuen.

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While Yardbird is yet to introduce any Okinawan dishes, Abergel and Faber say that certain dishes on their existing menu pair with awamori, such as the eggplant salad, which includes smoky, torched eggplant, cucumber, myoga (Japanese ginger) and a tosazu (bonito and soy vinegar) dressing. “Generally, it’s a summery dish, and I think everything that we’re talking about has this kind of warm-weather kind of feel, [like Okinawa],” Abergel says. “The earthiness of the nasu [eggplant] and the umami of the tosazu works with barrel-aged or undiluted awamori,” adds Faber. Shiso duck-fried rice, with bright floral herbs layered with the gaminess of the duck confit, creates a good balance.

For the skewers that Yardbird is known for, Faber says, “I would love to see the duck meatball with the barrel-aged awamori and something like chicken thigh shiso ume or fillet with a younger awamori.” He adds: “The awamori selection will be an extension of the shochu section with a two or three offerings and two highballs. At Ronin [their sister restaurant], I plan to build the selection up with five or six offerings and two highballs.”

Ku-suya Rakuen

12/F Circle Tower, 28 Tang Lung Street, Causeway Bay, tel: 3580 8858

Yardbird

33-35 Bridges Street, Sheung Wan, tel: 2547 9273