"You'd think they'd want you to sell their product, but that wasn't the case. You've got to bow your head and say, 'Can I please sell your product.' And they'll say, 'Come back.' And if you come back enough, they'll let you do it."

Randy Kuba
Co-owner of Awamori Spirits LLC

Randy Kuba hopes to find a market for awamori, an obscure liquor that tastes like sake-infused vodka with a little citrus.

That’s the spirit

A local company is preparing to import
two new lines of awamori into Hawaii
and introduce the Okinawan liquor
to the U.S. market

A decade later, Randy Kuba still remembers the old house surrounded by herb gardens where he first tried awamori: an Okinawan liquor that is a symbol of hospitality on the island.

Now, after years of visiting Okinawa, finding his roots and building trust with awamori distillers, Kuba is preparing to import two new lines of awamori into Hawaii. His goal: to introduce the spirit beyond the Asian niche to the general U.S. market.

Kuba and his wife, Frances Nakachi Kuba, have poured $100,000 into the venture, their second attempt to popularize the drink after a failed first try.

"This is do or die," Kuba said.

Later this month, the Kubas' company, Awamori Spirits LLC, is scheduled to receive a container packed with its new brands: Dancing Sea and CraZcrane, the latter aimed at the 20-something club crowd. Awamori Spirits plans to start selling the product in Hawaii next month, using the islands as a test market before expanding to the mainland.

Notwithstanding Kuba's attractive bottle designs, a built-in market of enthusiasts in Hawaii and a marketing strategy informed by his earlier failure, the question remains: Can Kuba really make money by selling an obscure liquor that tastes like sake-infused vodka with a hint of citrus?

"The short answer is 'Sure,' '' said Jack Robertiello, editor of Cheers, a New York-based restaurant beverage trade magazine. "Stuff like this takes off all the time.

"If this guy's got a market he can count on, even if it's a small market, there's profit to be made selling alcohol," Robertiello said.


Randy Kuba, co-owner of Awamori Spirits LLC, alongside BluWater Grill chef Bill Bruhl and an awamori and miso-glazed salmon

The biggest challenge, Robertiello said, is distribution and marketing, which poses no small challenge for a new product that will wholesale for $17 to $19 a bottle for CraZcrane and $21 to $65 a bottle for the premium Dancing Sea labels.

The solution, Robertiello said, is to get Dancing Sea in front of people with disposable income.

"If you have a luxury product," Robertiello said, "you take it to the restaurants."

That's exactly what Kuba has been doing.

At the posh BluWater Grill, overlooking the water in Hawaii Kai, chef Bill Bruhl already has created one new dish: an awamori and miso-glazed salmon.

The marinade, which also includes shoyu, ginger and garlic, cures the salmon because of the alcohol in the awamori, Bruhl said, firming the fish and making it easier to serve rare.

Furthermore, because awamori is a distilled liquor, with alcohol content ranging from 25 percent to 43 percent, it has advantages over sake for cocktails, Bruhl said.

"Sake's always struggled out here," Bruhl said. "I think there's something about awamori, because it's distilled, you'll be able to do more behind the bar."

Kevin Uyehara, Awamori Spirits' director of sales, said he and his team of three independent sales people are continually meeting with chefs and bartenders. Tiki's Grill & Bar in Waikiki is one of several places that plans to carry the company's lychee-infused awamori, he said. And the exclusive Pacific Club has shown an interest in carrying Dancing Sea Black label in its bar, Uyehara said. Jackie's Kitchen, Jackie Chan's restaurant in Ala Moana Center, is also on board, Uyehara said.

Awamori Spirits also has something else going for it: a core of ardent awamori enthusiasts more than willing to sing the drink's praises, the so-called evangelists that marketers lust after.

Monica Munro is from Okinawa and grew up with awamori in her home. Now 31, Munro has a cool job producing Japanese television commercials, and she's in the middle of the key 21- to-35-year-old market demographic. In short, she's exactly the sort of person Awamori Spirits wants talking up its product.

Munro is also a member of Honolulu's awamori club, which holds monthly meetings at local restaurants, where chefs and bartenders make dishes and cocktails featuring Awamori Spirits products for the club to sample.

Although she bristled at the label "awamori enthusiast," Munro nonetheless waxed enthusiastic when asked about awamori. According to Munro, awamori is as versatile as vodka and mellower than sake.

"If you've had sake before, it's kind of similar, but it's a lot smoother," she said.

And as booze goes, Munro said, it's good for you.

"I talk to people who are just after college age, and I tell them, 'You don't get hangovers.' Their eyes light up and they say, 'Really?' '' Munro said. "Then to the older people I say, 'It's good for health.' "

Kuba's quest to bring awamori to the United States began 10 years ago, when he started visiting Okinawa, his grandfather's birthplace. On his first visit to his ancestral province, Kuba recalled, he went to a home where he sat at a handmade table and was served awamori from an earthenware pot. As he went around meeting the descendants of his ancestors' neighbors, Kuba encountered the clay awamori jars in every home.

"I wasn't really a drinker then," Kuba said. "But to them, it's something they age for a long time, waiting for an opportunity to present it."

So Kuba developed a taste for awamori.

Kuba had worked in the import-export business, exporting products such as concentrated orange juice to Okinawa. So he began entertaining the idea of importing awamori to Hawaii. But first, he had to earn the trust of distillers.

"You'd think they'd want you to sell their product, but that wasn't the case," Kuba said. "You've got to bow your head and say, 'Can I please sell your product.' And they'll say, 'Come back.' And if you come back enough, they'll let you do it."

So he went back again and again.

Because awamori is a distilled spirit, made from Thai rice sprinkled with black yeast and then fermented before distillation, Kuba also needed approvals from the U.S Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

His first attempt, a brand called Sunsing, never took off. The only bottles he could find in Okinawa to meet ATF regulations were unattractive, Kuba said. And his label was lackluster. Kuba lost $12,000 to $15,000 on the venture.

Meanwhile, Kuba said, firms such as the Cherry Co. of Honolulu began to import awamori, mainly to sell in Japanese and Okinawan restaurants. Kuba did not want to be the first in the market only to lose out to bigger players, so he pressed on. Eventually, Kuba found new bottles, which have an antique apothecary look, and hired a graphic designer to create new labels.

The CraZcrane label was inspired by the East Asian symbol of longevity and the fact that Kuba saw his venture as "a crazy idea."

The traditional Okinawan distillers initially were not amused by the name, Kuba said, but he eventually convinced them that it was appropriate for the fun-loving culture of the United States. Working with the distillers, Kuba said, taught him more about his ancestral culture than he ever expected to learn when he started visiting the island a decade ago.

"You've got to adjust because their ways are different," Kuba said. "It's more than business (to the distillers). They make it more than business."

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