Do you know how to tell if you're in a true Okinawan restaurant? Check if there's awamori on the menu. Awamori is the tropical Japanese island's rotgut, unique to it and only it—inextricably linked to the region, much like Champagne is to the area of northwestern France. But unlike Champagne, not many people outside of Japan know what awamori is. And contrary to what you might assume, it's nothing like sake, which is brewed. Awamori is a distilled spirit. To put it in very simplistic terms: sake is to wine as awamori is to vodka.
But unlike vodka, awamori it's not usually made into cocktails or mixed with anything else other than water and ice. And when you ask the waitress at Habuya, OC's one true Okinawan restaurant, she might give you a primer on what awamori on their list is easiest to drink and what will go down like paint thinner. If it's your first time, it almost doesn't matter what you choose—all the awamoris will burn your insides going down. It can be an acquired taste.
If you settle on the Shimauta Awamori, you'll find it's as harsh a drink as any of the others on the list, unapologetically alcoholic, but also with a delicate and subtle herbal note as soon as the initial sting burns off. The longer you let it get diluted in the ice, the softer its bite gets and the more pronounced its other qualities become. But it's actually the perfect Okinawan drink to accompany the quintessential Okinawan dish of goya chanpuru, a stir fry of bittermelon and Spam, which, to be honest, may be more of an acquired taste than the awamori.