Habu Sake: Okinawa’s Ancient Drink With a Potent Bite

All about the sake with the biggest “bite”

If you ever plan on taking a trip to any exotic locale, one way to really “drink in” the local culture is to sample the traditional alcoholic beverages of the area.

In Okinawa, this beverage is awamori, a richly flavored liquor traditionally sipped slowly from tiny cups called chibuguwa. Still, it can be cut with water, added to citrusy cocktails, or even added to your morning coffee. 

Once you’re well-acclimated with the basic profile of the drink, you can try the mellower, aged kusu or hop on a train to Yonaguni and have a shot of the powerful hanazake.

However, for the truly adventurous drinker thirsty for booze with some real “bite,” we recommend habu sake.

Even if you can’t read Japanese, you should be able to tell which bottles contain this beverage. That’s because habu sake gets its name from the venomous habu snake coiled in the bottom!

Intrigued? Read on to learn more about Okinawa’s infamous snake wine.

What Is Habu Sake?

As mentioned above, habu sake gets its name from the habu snake inside most bottles of the spirit. The habu snake is a pit viper native to the Ryuku Islands. Its bite can cause nausea, vomiting, hypertension, and even death if you do not treat it promptly.

Fortunately, the long soak in alcohol breaks down the habu snake’s venom, so you don’t need to worry about one shot of snake wine sending you to the hospital!

To call habu sake “sake” is a bit misleading. The alcoholic beverage that forms the base of this drink, often called habushu, is awamori which, like sake, is made with crushed rice and koji mold, but that’s where the similarities end.

Awamori is a distilled beverage typically running between 30-40% ABV, whereas sake is not distilled and ranges between 13-17% ABV. The types of rice and koji mold used differ, and sake is typically made with Japan-grown japonica rice.

In contrast, awamori is usually made with the harder, easier to work with indica rice, usually imported from Thailand. As for koji, most sake-makers prefer the yellow koji for its smooth, elegant flavor.

Awamori is made with the black koji mold native to Okinawa. This mold produces a lot of citric acids, giving the resulting beverage a distinctive flavor that pairs well with citrus fruits, such as the Okinawa-grown shikuwasa.

Why is habushu called habu sake? One possible reason is that in Japan, “sake” is a generic term for all alcoholic beverages. The drink we in the West call “sake” is nihonshu, or “Japanese alcoholic beverage” in the land of its birth.

Using the given information, one can deduce that “habushu” means “habu alcoholic beverage”!

How Habu Sake Gets Made

To make habu sake, you start with the awamori. The product method begins with washed and steamed indica rice, inoculated with black Koji mold, in a carefully climate-controlled room for two days. Water and yeast are then added to the mixture, which then ferments.

After fermentation comes distillation. What makes awamori’s distillation process unique is that it only goes through the process once, meaning that the resulting spirit retains much of the flavor that would have evaporated otherwise.

After an aging period in tanks or earthenware jugs, the awamori is considered finished. The process of turning it into habushu can begin.

To make habu sake, you need a habu snake. When making habushu, most manufacturers prep the snake by laying it in ice until it passes out, then cutting it open to drain its blood. Afterward, the snake is submerged in an ethanol bath for 40 days before being introduced to the awamori.

Traditionally, the habu starved in a pot for several days to clean out its digestive system before drowning in the awamori. Besides being inhumane, this method gave the resulting snake wine an unpleasant smell, so the traditional approach has largely been abandoned today.

Most habu sake makers will mix honey and herbs into the awamori before pouring them into the bottle to impart extra flavor.

What Habu Sake Tastes Like

The flavor profile of habu sake can vary wildly between different makers. Some have a mellow, sweet spice, while others are more harsh and fiery.

Habushu’s flavor has also been described as “complex” by some drinkers. The snake is likely responsible for some of this “complexity.”

Habu sake made via the modern method (where the snake is killed before entering the sake jar) is noted to have a cleaner flavor.

How to Drink Habu Sake

You can drink habu sake like any other form of awamori. The traditional way to drink awamori is from thimble-sized cups called chibuguwa.

When drinking from these tiny cups, resist the temptation to down your sake in one gulp. Awamori is meant to be sipped slowly, and make sure to savor the aroma before each sip.

Cutting your habu sake with hot or cold water will adjust its flavor profile. If you find your snake wine a little too harsh, add some ice made from soft water for a smoother profile. If you want a mellower, more well-rounded drink, add a few drops of hot water to your chibuguwa.

Habu sake’s relatively high alcohol content makes it an excellent choice for cocktails. A popular option is to make it into sangria. Pour your habu sake over strawberries, orange, lemon, and mint, and store for two days.

Benefits and Risks of Habu Sake

Here are other things to remember when considering whether to add Okinawan snake wine to your bar shelf.

Potential Risks

The most significant risk when buying a bottle of awamori with a dead snake inside is the dead snake inside. Although alcohol preserves the snake’s body, it is essential never to let the snake be exposed to air. This will keep the snake from rotting inside the bottle.

Potential Health Benefits

Habu snakes are renowned for their ability to persevere through harsh conditions. One example of this resilience is this snake species’ ability to survive for over 400 days without water.

Okinawa locals hope to obtain some of this resilience by sipping habu sake as a health tonic.

Although none of these alleged health benefits have been formally tested, some Okinawans swear by habu sake’s ability to increase energy levels, help people sleep, and soothe joint and back pain.

Frequently Asked Questions

Have we piqued your curiosity? Read on to have a few pressing habu sake questions answered.

Can habu sake be bought outside of Japan?

You can only buy habu sake in Japan. However, as the habu snake is not considered an endangered species, it is possible to import habu sake into the United States.

Are there other types of awamori?

Yes. There’s kusu, awamori, aged for three years, and it has a mellower flavor. Hanakaze is a form of awamori with an ABV of 60%. You can only buy it in Yonagui, the only place in Japan where liquor with an ABV above 45% is legal.

Does habu sake have medicinal benefits?

Science has not verified, but habu sake is alleged to have several medicinal properties, such as enhancing energy, improving sleeping patterns, and soothing back and joint pain.

Final Thoughts

From its roots as an ancient Okinawan medicinal tonic to a potent pick-me-up for adventurous overseas guests, habu sake has always promised a taste of pit viper snake spirit. What do you think of Okinawa’s signature snake wine? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Please drink responsibly, be fully accountable with your alcohol consumption, and show others respect.

Written by Lauren McKenna

Lauren is a soon to be Temple University graduate. Her love of travel has introduced her to food and drinks from all over the world. She provides MyBartender with a global view of all things alcohol.

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