The one striking thing I learnt about Okinawa Gin was that it was made in the hope of raising awareness for Awamori, the island’s signature spirit.
But before we get into the gin let’s do a quick flashback: Awamori is a traditional Japanese spirit with a storied history that originated in the Ryukyu era, a period of great prosperity for the Southern islands.
Influential in its time and a central figure in maritime trade in South East Asia, the Ryukyu kingdom was friendly with China and it also counted Thailand amongst its trade partners. And it is from their trading relations with Thailand that they learnt the distillation techniques that would be adopted to making Awamori – this is why it is sometimes likened to Lao Khao, a rice spirit of Thai origin. To this day, Awamori is still made with long-grained Indica Thai rice, as opposed to short-grained Japonica rice.
However, Awamori has not enjoyed a good reputation in the last century and gained an unfortunate reputation for being a second rate shochu. The fact is that Awamori tends to blossom with age and the Second World War set the industry back decades when most of its old stock was lost as a result of the intense fighting.
Although Shochu shares some similarities with Awamori, they differ fundamentally in the sense that Awamori only goes through a single fermentation as opposed to two and it exclusively uses black koji. It is very unique as the resulting product contains a lot of acids.
Part of the reason why black koji is used, explains Madoka Numata, brand manager for Okinawa Gin, is that the mould stands up to the Okinawan heat. So even though the fermentation temperatures are higher, the mould can still survive. For those who missed it, Okinawa has a subtropical climate, which means they do experience winters, though it never gets really cold – typically no lesser than 10 degrees celsius; maybe 7-8 if really cool, according to Madoka.
Like Baijiu, Awamori distillers are actually trying to raise the profile of Awamori through cocktails, so it’s actually interesting that Masahiro Shuzo Brewery, an Awamori producer with 137 years of history, is going the way of making a gin instead. When asked, sixth-generation distiller and Vice-President of Masahiro Shuzo Brewery Masayasu Higa explained that they were convinced that gin was a good solution for what they were trying to achieve – to showcase Awamori for the benefit locals and foreigners alike and that foreigners may come to know more about Okinawa as well.
So, back to Okinawa Gin – what’s interesting about it is that it uses Awamori as a base. In essence, it is Awamori infused with botanicals. For this process, two stills are used; a conventional pot still, and an unusual horizontal still whereby the botanicals are infused. The resultant distillates are then blended to make Okinawa Gin.”The horizontal one (still) is more classical when talking about awamori. It’s common in very old style awamori producers. Not every distillery is still using it but there are several distilleries using horizontal stills. Characteristics-wise, horizontal ones tend to be richer and more unique to the character (of Awamori). Often it is very sweet,” Madoka explained.
While there are plans to release other versions or recipes of Okinawa Gin – they’re actually putting the finishing touches for a second recipe – at the moment Okinawa Gin is only available in a single expression: Recipe No. 1. As of now, they’re producing 40,000 bottles a year. In context, that’s less than five per cent of its Awamori production, which number around 1 million bottles per year. Okinawa Gin is available in 22 countries around the world, and interestingly its largest market is in the USA.
Madoka notes that they did not want to do a London style gin that’s heavy on juniper from the get-go, opting for a Dutch-style gin play down the juniper and let the local ingredients take centre stage and showcase the unique flavours of Okinawa. And within a year they finalised the list of ingredients that would make Recipe No 1.
“We tried, narrowed down, and finally we picked these five botanicals to complete our recipe,” said Madoka. The five were Shekwasa, Goya, Guava leaves, Roselle and Pipatsu, all of which are sourced locally. Only Juniper is sourced from Madagascar. The Shekwasa is the key to this recipe and it has to be used fresh, so they are frozen; the rest is dried.”It was difficult for us to finalise the taste with well-balanced acidity and bitterness from the bitter melon and the spiciness – long pepper (Pipatsu) has a very unique spice – and also widely available in Okinawa. But if we add too much its way too spicy and too funky so it was kind of a challenge to make it balanced,” she explained.
But it only really made sense until we got to try the gin and for a while, I was genuinely confused, in more ways than one. The profile certainly is interesting but what really got my attention was the idea that Madoka and Higa do not see it as a cocktail gin. Perhaps it was the fact that it was designed to leverage gin and yet it is more of a sipping gin or a highball gin. Why so? It has an earthiness to it, which means you need to be more mindful about how you use it. That said, Kentaro Satoh of D.Bespoke fame sort of undercut their tone by conjuring up a couple of cocktails that seem to go against the idea that Okinawa Gin isn’t a cocktail gin (D.Bespoke doesn’t typically stock Okinawa Gin, but no harm asking for a Ri-Cher). I’m pretty sure it’s doable though, just that this is relatively new territory.
But when tasting the spirit on its own, it’s not a stretch to realise why Madoka placed so much emphasis on it as a simple summer drink. Indeed, it displays a wonderful balance of citrus and fruit with bitterness; the earthiness, coupled with good mouthfeel and slight oiliness, which makes it a savoury, yet refreshing drink. It even turns a little cloudy with cold, soda water, which I’m told, is due to the oils from the Shekwasa.
“Refreshment is a very key idea for our gin – I like to have it with a soda,” said Madoka. “We hope drinkers will appreciate this as simple as possible.”
Well, I certainly do. (But if you don’t think this your cup of tea, here’re nine others that might suit your fancy.)
Okinawa Gin is currently listed at Ce La Vi Singapore, Atlas Bar and The Gong by Drinks & Co.
Okinawa Gin is distributed in Singapore and Cambodia exclusively by De Majestic Vines. It is available for
purchase on shop.demajesticvines.com.