Awamori 泡盛 is the local liquor here in the Ryukyu Islands. It is very different than Japanese mainland liquor 日本酒 nihonshu or “sake” as many foreigners refer to it as. Sake 酒 actually means “alcohol” in Japanese and refers to everything from beer and chuhai to seishu and whiskey.
Awamori gets its name from the bubbles (awa 泡) that appear on it surface when it is distilled. Since it is unique to Okinawa, you may also hear it called shima-zake 島酒 (translation: island liquor).
Firstly, awamori is distilled and not brewed, which makes it more similar to shochu 焼酎. It is also made from long-grain Thai rice, not Japanese short-grain rice. Occasionally you will hear it referred to as shima-zake 島酒, “island liquor.” If an awamori has been aged more than 3 years in a clay pot, it is then considered kusu 古酒, “old liquor.” Typically the alcohol content of awamori is 25%-45%… so be careful, it can be quite potent.
Some important to note is aging time: similar to a whiskey, aging changes the flavor a lot. If there is no indication of aging time on the label, it is under 3 years and considered “new” liquor. Otherwise, you will see 3 year, 5 year, 8 year, 10 year… probably not a lot older than this but you might find some. 古酒 “kusu” is the kanji to look for when searching for an aged awamori.
Personally, I mostly only use awamori to make “koregusu” コーレーグス, the local chili water you see on all the tables of shokudo restaurants. In this case, I just buy whatever is cheap or on sale.
There are many distilleries on the islands where you can see how it is made and try some samples. Behind Shuri-jo is the Zuisen distillery 瑞泉 and Chuko distillery 忠孝蔵 in Tomigusuku is a second place. Another recently discovered location is Masahiro in Itoman.
addresses for Awamori distilleries you can visit and sample:
Zuisen 瑞泉酒造: 〒903-0814 沖縄県那覇市首里崎山町1-35 https://goo.gl/maps/xbi3ERYZC2n
Masahiro まさひろ酒造: 〒901-0306 沖縄県糸満市西崎町5-8-7 https://goo.gl/maps/TrEFwEeDUWz
Chuko 忠孝蔵: 豊見城市字伊良波 556-2 https://goo.gl/maps/oAyUbJFut192
Helios ヘリオス酒造: 〒905-0024 沖縄県名護市許田405 https://goo.gl/maps/LbKTCDvjmuy