The Revival of a Ryukyu Spirit
In addition to awamori, Okinawa is home to imuge, a unique island spirit distilled from sweet potatoes
During the time of the Ryukyu Kingdom, working-class locals brewed their own alcohol. Using sweet potatoes, they distilled a homemade liquor called imuge. In 1899, homebrewing was made illegal, and the spirit was no longer produced. More than a century later, it has been revived as Imuge, an Okinawan brand.
Mr. Kenryu Kanna, the CEO of Ishigaki Island’s Seifuku Distillery and promoter of the Imuge Project explained the history of awamori and imuge. For 600 years, awamori has been distilled in Okinawa, but its production was under the strict control of the Ryukyu royal government. Awamori was served only to the royal family and those of high rank, and was not available to commoners. However, on an island of song and dance it seemed likely to Mr. Kanna that there would be alcohol produced for gatherings. After researching the subject, he discovered that locals were making potato alcohol using locally grown sweet potatoes and brown sugar. This was done in homes and villages, using a fermentation process similar to that used to make miso.
Inspired by this history, in 2016 Mr. Kanna and two other distilleries, Taragawa from Miyako Island and Kumesen from Kume Island, started to collaborate to develop and produce imuge. Even Okinawans don’t know about imuge’s history, and think of awamori as Okinawa’s one and only local alcohol. Mr. Kanna wanted to educate people of this history, and to create, or rather recreate, imuge as the second Ryukyu spirit under the branding Imuge. In 2019 Imuge was released in three variations, one from each island. Each is made of sweet potato and sugarcane, using unique brewing methods. As a result, each variation has its own characteristics.
Local produce for local consumption is the philosophy behind Imuge. By sourcing local ingredients to create a local product, various local sectors benefit. In this way, imuge can help to revitalize the island.
Imuge has the qualities of both a potato alcohol and a brown sugar alcohol. Current liquor tax law in Japan means that because of sugar, imuge is classed as a spirit rather than shochu. It also contains black koji mold that is also used in awamori. These three elements, sweet potatoes, brown sugar, and koji, provide an incredible variation of flavors.
Experience a little bit of Okinawan history, and enjoy the flavor of Ryukyu tradition with Imuge.
Last updated 2021/12/20
Text by Kei Itaya
Magazine editor, writer, newspaper journalist in Tokyo and NYC for more than 15 years. Returned to her hometown of Okinawa in 2019.
This interview was conducted based on the guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19.