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Sipping Tradition at Zuisen Distillery

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Sipping Tradition at Zuisen Distillery Text and photography

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taste& travel international  july–september 2018

Michele Peterson


Sipping Tradition at Zuisen Distillery

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japan

PHOTOS THIS SPREAD Cherry blossoms; The historic Zuisen Distillery in Naha, Okinawa.

Japan Where on Earth

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’m lurking behind the stone walls of a castle in Japan looking for an ancient distillery. It’s not just any distillery. It’s one of the few granted permission to produce awamori kosu, a rice alcohol so prized that during the 15th-century Ryukyu Dynasty, only royalty were allowed to drink it. july–september 2018  taste& travel international

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Sipping Tradition at Zuisen Distillery

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PHOTOS THIS SPREAD CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT Between 1429 and 1879, Japan’s Shurijo Castle was the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom; Kokusai street food stalls in Naha; A tutored tasting of Awamori at Zuisen Distillery in Naha.

Akimasa Yuasa JNTO

This is Shurijo Castle in Naha, the capital of Okinawa,

the main island in Japan’s Nansei Shoto archipelago. Between 1429 and 1879, it served as the palace of the Ryukyu kingdom, an empire with a powerful maritime trade network stretching southwest from Kyushu to Taiwan. Destroyed during World War II, the rebuilt castle is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I’ve arrived in Naha on Holland America’s MS Volendam, a 1432-passenger luxury cruise ship registered in the Netherlands. Our 14-day Taiwan & Japan itinerary features ports of call in Hong Kong, Manila (Philippines), Kaohsiung and Keelung (Taiwan), Naha, Fukuoka, Nagasaki (Japan) and Shanghai (China). While at other ports, I participated in fascinating shore excursions — from exploring the street markets in Hong Kong’s New Territories to soaking in thermal waters at Tienlai Hot Springs in Taiwan — in Okinawa, I’ve opted for independent exploration. I’m keen to sample awamori, the legendary ‘island sake’ of Okinawa, a distilled rice alcohol often confused with sake but really quite different. Awamori is a distilled rice spirit while sake is fermented rice wine.

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taste& travel international  july–september 2018


Sipping Tradition at Zuisen Distillery

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…Living koji spores are one of the key distinctions of awamori… Okinawa’s Rich History

Armed with instructions detailing Zuisen Distillery’s address in Japanese in case I get lost, I set out from the port intending to take a peek at Shurijo Castle on the way. Now, above me looms Keiseimon Gate (Akata Ujo), the former service entrance to the castle. Completed in 1546, during the reign of Kin Sho Sei, its unique concave shape made it possible for archers within to defend against intruders. I follow a trail from Shurijo Castle’s service gate through the Shuri neighbourhood, a leafy residential area dotted with ancient cobblestone paths, once part of Ryukyuan-era military routes and laneways to gardens of high-ranking officials. Shaded by 300-year-old trees, the path winds past the tomb of a 15th-century noble, a sacred well and a shrine for the worship of rain. On a street lined with blooming sakura cherry trees,

Zuisen Distillery is tucked behind a gate featuring a pair of Shisa lions, traditional Okinawan guardians against evil spirits.

Magical Mould of Awamori

“You’re fortunate to arrive on a day we are distilling awamori,” says Ms Saeko Sakumoto, Executive Chairperson of the Zuisen Distillery Co. who welcomes me and explains the history of awamori. One of the oldest spirits in Japan, it was developed in the 15th century using rice from Thailand. Only 40 houses were granted licenses to make awamori and it soon became a highly revered trade commodity. Its key ingredients are Thai rice and black koji mould. The rice is washed, drained and steamed. Koji culture is applied to the steamed rice and left to develop. Water and yeast are then added to make unrefined mash or moromi. The moromi july–september 2018  taste& travel international

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Sipping Tradition at Zuisen Distillery

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Serves 1

Lotus Blossom Cocktail A delicious sip created during my Asian Cocktail Mixology Class on the MS Volendam. Grey Goose La Poire Vodka or Awamori ½ oz Sake 1 oz Lychee Juice/Liqueur 2 oz Simple Syrup ½ oz Lime Wedge 1 piece Red Apple 1 slice Lychee or Maraschino Cherry 1 1 Muddle the lime wedge in a mixing glass. Pack the glass with ice, then pour the ingredients into the glass. Shake and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with the apple slice and lychee or maraschino cherry. Recipe courtesy of Holland America.

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taste& travel international  july–september 2018

PHOTOS THIS SPREAD CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT Sake cocktail class aboard MS Volendam; Kokusai Dori is the main street for shopping, restaurants and nightlife in Naha; Aged awamori at Zuisen Distillery in Naha.


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Sipping Tradition at Zuisen Distillery

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ferments further and is then transferred to stainless steel pot stills for distillation. It’s then transferred to clay pots to be aged in cool underground storerooms, producing a refined awamori known as kosu. The longer it’s aged, the more aromatic and full-bodied it becomes. Living koji spores are one of the key distinctions of awamori. Local koji became scarce during WWII and practically disappeared from use. In 1998, it was discovered that Dr Kinichiro Sakaguchi of Tokyo University had a supply of the rare ‘zuisen’ mould. “It was returned to Okinawa and after much trial and error, we succeeded in producing awamori,” explains Ms Sakumoto. Following the revival of production, Zuisen Distillery has gone on to win several international awards including the Gold Medal in the 2004 Distilled Liquor Competition in Germany.

Tasting Awamori at Zuisen Distillery

“Awamori is best sipped straight, mixed with water or served on the rocks,” explains Ms Sakumoto as she pours a thimbleful into a chibuguwa, the tiny clay cup used for serving awamori. “On cool nights it can be added to hot water.” My tutoured tasting begins with Seiryu, a sweet 3-year-old kusu with a 30 percent alcoholic content that is surprisingly mellow. Next up, is a 10-year-old kusu offering more intense flavour and velvety smoothness. A splash of water brings out floral notes and fullness. “Awamori is also considered to be a healthy tonic,” explains Ms Sakumoto, “Enzymes within awamori aid digestion and can help dissolve blood clots.” Later, I browse the Zuisen Awamori shop where the shelves are filled with earthenware awamori vessels as well as new products such as Zuisen Ocean Blue, which incorporates pure ocean water into the fermentation process. Traditionally enjoyed solely in Okinawa, the spirit’s versatility and artisanal craftsmanship is drawing new attention throughout Japan. At least 36 awamori distilleries now operate within Okinawa and while the spirit is most often enjoyed straight, it’s becoming popular in contemporary cocktails within the bars and restaurants on Kokusai Dori Street, the heart of Naha’s nightlife. Back on the MS Volendam, I have an opportunity to explore a range of modern cocktails — from a Lotus Blossom martini to a Samurai Mojito — during an Asian Mixology Class. As one of Holland America’s mid-sized ships, the Volendam is large enough to offer enriching experiences such as tastings, sessions on Chinese Herbal Medicine and demonstrations within the Culinary Arts Center, a theatre where chefs trained by America’s Test Kitchen provide cooking classes featuring dishes inspired by our ports of call. As we sail to our next port of Fukuoka, I take with me a new appreciation of Okinawa’s intriguing local treasure, just as the ambassadors of Ryukyu ancient dynasty would have intended.

Holland America Line

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Visiting all seven continents, Holland America’s fleet of 14 ships offers more than 500 cruises to 400 ports in 98 countries, territories and dependencies around the world. In addition to this 14-day Taiwan & Japan cruise, Holland America offers several itineraries to the port of Naha, Okinawa. www.hollandamerica.com

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Zuisen Distillery

Tours are offered every 30 minutes. The distillery is a 10-minute walk from Shurijo Castle and Shuri Rail station. www.zuisen.co.jp

Michele Peterson is an awardwinning travel writer who specializes in food, drink and sun destinations. Contact her via www.michelepeterson.com

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july–september 2018  taste& travel international

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Sipping Tradition at Zuisen Distillery Japan  

Exploring the ancient history, traditions and tastes of awamori, a distilled rice liquor that's one of the oldest spirits in Japan, at Zuise...

Sipping Tradition at Zuisen Distillery Japan  

Exploring the ancient history, traditions and tastes of awamori, a distilled rice liquor that's one of the oldest spirits in Japan, at Zuise...

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