When I moved to Japan one of my hopes was to start secondary aging Okinawan awamori at home. While it is nearly impossible to source these ceramic pots in the US, it is not that difficult in Japan so long as you are willing to pay. These are typically reserved for long-aged, or kusu awamori (古酒泡盛), which can run hundreds of dollars per liter especially in the traditional decorative ceramic jars, or “kame” (甕).
A couple hours browsing amazon.co.jp and rakuten.co.jp left me hamstrung with indecision. While there are only 47 awamori distilleries in Okinawa, I did not know which brand to order since I could not find one from one of my favorite distilleries, which are invariably tiny family owned places and likely cannot afford to source let along sit on stock of these aging pots. A visit to Okinawa for the first time since moving to Japan for Okinawa Whisky & Spirits Fes (yes, without the “t”) in late 2019 did not yield any better decision-making as the only places I had time to visit were in the tourist areas and again it was impossible to decide which of the dozens of pots was the right one to call my own. The tyranny of choice had struck again.
The pot I have in storage back in NY was easy. Taragawa Distillery sent it to me as a thank you for helping them at a trade show in NYC. It is now refilled religiously with their Rykyu Ohcho brand and I adore how it mellows over a few months to years. I have begun using the shitsugi method, which is the Okinawan style of solera again where I refill the pot after each session with fresh Ryukyu Ohcho from a bottle I always have on hand. With only one pot, I cannot do true shitsugi, but its not bad for NYC.
The Mystery Begins
It would be boring to get the exact same awamori here in Japan, wouldn’t it? Instead I scoured second hand trading websites for empty pots and finally emailed my friend Maurice down at Blue Habu Trade in Okinawa. As luck would have it, he had just been given an old awamori pot by a local alcohol wholesaler. He seemed hesitant to part with it, but promised he would ask around. A couple weeks later he texted me a picture of the pot and asked if it would work.
No stickers, no wooden name plate, no identification whatsoever, and as far as I could tell, unopened with the factory seal still in place. Sure, what the hell? I would make it my own. I offered to pay whatever Maurice would like for it, but he just charged me shipping, which was beyond generous.
However, when the pot arrived, there was on more piece of identifying information. A stained and tattered piece of traditional Okinawan bingata fabric. These colorful fabrics are the equivalent to Hawaiian aloha shirts in Okinawa. They are used for yukata (casual summer kimonos), Okinawan aloha shirts, and yes, awamori pot decorations.
I texted Maurice to ask if the fabric might be used to track down the provenance of the liquid inside. He was just as curious as I was so I posted on Twitter and within 31 minutes, the Awamori master at Awamori Souko, Koji Higa, had identified the fabric as being proprietary to Sakimoto Distillery. A quick perusal of their website revealed that they are no longer selling these kinds of ceramic pots, at least not online, so I started hitting up auction sites and other online liquor shops.
About 20 minutes into my searching I hit on a photo of the Sakimoto 8 Year Old Awamori in a similar pot with an identical bingata cloth. Further searching began revealing bottling date stickers on the sides of these pots ranging from 2001 to 2013.
Given that it was 8 years old when placed in the pot, that would put the liquid inside at between 15 and 28 years old! I had never tasted awamori this long aged in ceramic other than thimbles full at distilleries. However, I was determined not to drink it until I could share it with Maurice. Sadly, in the current environment, that means during a virtual drinking party, or on-nomi, as they are called in Japan.
Fortunately, he jumped on one recently and I was able to open it with him and let him know just how amazing it was. And was it ever – so lush and rich and smooth. You would not believe its a 43% ABV spirit. Given that it had never been opened and the substantial angel’s share loss (evaporation found in oak barrels and these ceramic pots), I am guessing it is closer to 28 years old than 15. Of course, there is no way of knowing – I only know that it is delicious. Don’t worry, Maurice, you will definitely taste it before its gone!
I have now begun looking for Sakimoto awamori to begin to shitsugi, but it looks like everything currently available online is much younger than this so I may just enjoy this while I have it and then make this pot truly my own, filling it with whatever catches my fancy.