“Trade on the Silk Road played a significant role in the development of the civilizations of China, the Goguryeo Kingdom (Korea), Japan, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, Europe, the Horn of Africa and Arabia... Though silk was certainly the major trade item exported from China, many other goods were traded, as well as religions, syncretic philosophies, and various technologies.”
Indeed, the Silk Road (202 BC to 1911) was a vast mechanism that coincided with a tributary system, which involved long-lasting trade relationships between the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911), and numerous neighboring countries. Furthermore, the Ming-era Treasure Voyages also helped create the enormous trade network.
The practice of mutually beneficial interactions among trade partners no doubt played a significant role in shaping the region’s culture and affairs. For instance, kingdoms such as the Ryukyu Kingdom (Okinawa), Sukothai Kingdom (Thailand), and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) were participants in the Ming Dynasty’s tributary system and benefitted from their respective trade agreements. The linkage included many products, a few examples of which are: works of art, exotic spices, and techniques for distilling alcoholic beverages.
Throughout the history of international trade among nations, practices of alcohol distillation would be passed on from one civilization to the next. Each nation or region added variations based on available ingredients and natural resources. For example, while its precise origin is debatable, Arrack represents a vast amount of distilled alcoholic beverages that is produced throughout Asia and the eastern Mediterranean.
“In central and Southern China, arrack is commonly made from rice while in Egypt it’s largely dates. In Mongolia it refers to a distillate from fermented milk, in Sri Lanka it’s largely made from the fermented sap of the coconut flower...”
Interestingly, Arrack is very similar to Palm Wine, which also has a global reach and multiple variations. For instance, the practice of extracting toddy (sap) from date palms in Nigeria for producing Palm Wine is comparable to the practice of extracting toddy from coconut palms in Sri Lanka for producing Arrack.
Similarly, Ryukyu Awamori owes its existence to Okinawa’s extensive trading history. It is an existence that originates from Thai spirits known as Lao Khao. The technique of distilling from Thai rice reached Okinawa during the 15th century and is practiced to this day.
Over the years, the Okinawans have refined the distillation process, incorporating techniques from nearby countries. This was done to make Awamori more suitable for the subtropical climates.
During its tributary relationship with China, Ryukyu Awamori, as with many other goods, was distributed as a tribute to China and Japan.
Moreover, the Sino-Ryukyu tributary system (1372 – 1874) was largely beneficial for nations that were normally cut off from one another because they were able to trade indirectly, via the Ryukyus. Thus, the Ryukyu Kingdom became a well-known intermediary, a relationship that lasted over 500 years. Subsequently, around the mid-16th century, Awamori and the alcohol distillation technique in general, arrived in Kagoshima, where Shochu was born.
“during the Edo Period in Japan (1603 – 1868), Shochu was called arakishu which is probably derived from 'arak' in the Middle East. And, it’s not simply a coincidence that China’s Rujiu 'dew of sake' and Arabic arak 'droplets of sweat', both carry the same definition.”
While it is still a mystery, one could draw the conclusion based on the history of trade networks (such as the Silk Road, Treasure Voyages, and the tributary system) that such relationships helped to create a lineage between Asian distilled liquors such as Arrack, Lao Khao, Awamori, and Shochu. One could say that the four beverages are related, like distant cousins.