Words by Ed McNamara
Photos by Brandon Nehrkorn
August, one of Japan’s hottest months, has just arrived. Wouldn’t it be great to enjoy a refreshing drink in this heat? Why not try something Japanese, like umeshu?
Umeshu is a light, tart alcoholic drink made from ume. Ume are commonly called “Japanese plums”; they are closely related to apricots, but look more like Western plums. The shu of umeshu simply denotes it as a sake, or alcoholic drink.
In English, umeshu is usually called “plum wine,” even though it goes through the infusing process of a liqueur and not the fermentation process of wine. Uniquely, because no alcohol is produced in the production of umeshu, no permit is needed to make it in Japan. It is also very easy to make. In fact, probably the only hard thing about the umeshu process is waiting.
For the ingredients, you need ume, rock sugar and a clear liquor. Gathering them all should take just a short trip to your local supermarket. Hit up the baking section for the rock sugar. Look through the alcohol section for the clear liquor. Then head over to the fresh fruit section for the ume.
The ume are the only items that might be hard to find. Ume are in season right around June and July. Specifically, you are looking for bagged, unripe ume that are green in color, hard to the touch and no larger than golf balls. Sometimes 梅酒専用 (うめしゅせんよう umeshu senyou) – “for making umeshu” – is conveniently written on the bag. If not, just look for 1000g bags of a small, green fruit. You can’t miss them.
The last thing you need is an appropriate jar for your concoction. In your nearby department store, and sometimes right next to where you found your ume, Japan stocks special jars for making umeshu. These jars have a distinctive red lid and usually come in 1L, 2L and 4L varieties. The inner and outer lids allow for an easy sealing of the container, and the glass is a thicker variety than usual.
I recommend choosing a jar based on how much umeshu you intend to make. The easiest size is the 4L jar because the ume are bagged and sold in the right quantity for one 4L batch. I like to break mine up into two 2L jars for better portability. You could perhaps make it with a friend and split the results.
Here is the basic template for homemade umeshu:
1800ml Clear Liquor (Howaito rikaa ホワイトリカー)
1000g Japanese plums (Ume うめ 梅)
500-800g* Rock Sugar (Koori-zatou こおりざとう 氷砂糖)
*Go light on the sugar. You can always add more sugar later.
1) Wash and thoroughly dry your jar.
2) Wash your ume. Remove any loose debris (stems, etc).
3) Hand dry your ume.
4) Fill the jar (Do not fill the jar more than 4/5ths.).
A) Make a layer of umein the bottom of the jar.
B) Add rock sugar until the ume are slightly covered.
C) Repeat layers until you are out of ume and rock sugar.
D) Pour in the white liquor.
5) Seal the jar and place it somewhere out of direct sunlight.
6) Finally, wait.
How long you wait is flexible and depends mainly on your patience and how you want the umeshu to taste. I recommend waiting at least six months, although some say you can enjoy umeshu as early as three months in. The earlier you open the umeshu, the more tart it will be. Waiting any longer than one year will make the umeshu progressively mellower. It will turn smoother, softer and easier to drink. So, if you want a really mellow umeshu, think about leaving it for two years or more.
When you do finally crack open your concoction, you can enjoy it neat, on the rocks, or with water or soda as a mixer. The ume fruits can be eaten, tossed or stored separately. They won’t go bad easily with all that sugar and alcohol in them.
Finally, I want to leave you with some unique twists for your umeshu. Each set of ideas revolves around altering the basic ingredients of the mixture.
– Sugar –
Don’t add the sugar initially. Add it later to better control the sweetness. Or perhaps just skip the rock sugar altogether and use brown sugar, or even honey.
Switch out the ume for something else. Try biwa or kiwi. If you have caught yourself unable to find ume, try this to keep your jars busy until the next season rolls around. I have seen a variety of different recipes around and can attest to biwa-shu being top-notch awesome. Seek a recipe out, ask around, or experiment with something new.
– Alcohol –
Clear liquor, which is basically just vodka, is flavorless and allows you tap into the raw flavor essences of the ume. However, my friend Tyler recommends trying a brandy, or something with a little more character than vodka. Normal umeshu can be bought nearly anywhere in Japan, but a non-white liquor umeshu would definitely set your drink apart.
While you let your own umeshu age, take advantage of your time in Japan to sample the ones available around you. There are plenty of brands at the supermarket, and your friends and colleagues may have ready stashes of their own to share with curious taste buds. Umeshu is a simple refresher. In the heat of summer, I like to take it easy and enjoy mine cool, on the rocks.