Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association | JSS
Many Japanese foods and cultural practices relate to seasonal change. Early spring brings in steamed sea bream, whereas autumn welcomes the new rice harvest and the first batch of sake. While these seasonal customs shape Japanese dining culture overall, some practices offer the essence of tradition with year-round flexibility. One of the easiest ways to taste Japanese culture any time of year is through umeshu.
Umeshu is a drink loosely related to summer and is made with green Japanese plums before ripening. Making umeshu usually starts during late spring or early summer and the steeping time is left to the brewer’s discretion. Like sake, the flavor of umeshu adapts well to a wide range of temperatures, making it an excellent drink heated in the winter or chilled in summer. This brief guide will serve as an introduction to understanding and enjoying umeshu.
Umeshu is a fruity liqueur made from unripened Japanese plums, ume, steeped with sugar in distilled liquor over time. In most cases, 35% abv shochu is the liquor used in umeshu. Umeshu made with sake has been described in books from the 19th century. The use of sake is more traditional than distilled liquor. Many Japanese households have been making umeshu according to their recipes. However, nowadays, umeshu produced by various manufacturers is available on the market.
The pulp of green plums used in umeshu actually contains high concentrations of cyanide glycosides and is not suitable for eating. However, it is known that the cyanide compounds are degraded and greatly reduced by processing into umeshu.
Making umeshu takes at least six months before the final product is ready for consumption. Experts recommend aging past nine months for optimal flavor. The final product will have a moderate acidity and faint aroma from the plums. The sugar and aging from the alcohol provide a pleasant sweetness sometimes compared to almonds or marzipan.
Some umeshu sold in stores are not made with real ume plums. Instead, this umeshu includes perfumes and artificial flavorings mimicking the aroma and taste of plum. Umeshu made with actual Japanese plums should have the label “honkaku umeshu” (本格梅酒) meaning “real umeshu.”
The easiest way to ensure the umeshu you drink is made with real ume is to make it at home. The process is very simple and hands-off. Umeshu is Japan’s most common homemade liqueur. Some people make their own umeshu yearly or for several years before a momentous occasion.
Finding unripened ume plums outside of Japan can pose an issue. However, most Japanese specialty grocery stores will stock ume in spring, usually in mid-May.
Outside of Japan, umeshu is usually referred to as “plum wine”. However, this term is misleading. There is no fermentation process involved in making umeshu, a process crucial in winemaking. The term plum wine is a simplification used in overseas marketing to differentiate umeshu from other nihonshu, like sake and shochu.
In Japanese, umeshu is expressed with the characters 梅酒, meaning “plum” and “alcohol” respectively. The character “酒” on its own also refers to sake and often represents sake and “rice wine” in overseas markets.
When made with real plums, many believe umeshu provides several health benefits. Popular belief holds that ume themselves aid with gastrointestinal issues, such as constipation and diarrhea. When used in umeshu production, the plums add citric acid and other antioxidants to the liqueur. These properties are said to help with fatigue due to their energizing effects.
In contrast to most wines, umeshu also has a low concentration of histamines. This reduces common hangover side effects, such as headaches. However, umeshu is an alcoholic beverage and excess drinking will counteract any health benefits.
Like most Japanese alcohol, umeshu can be enjoyed in several forms. A change in temperature emphasizes different aspects of the taste profile. Heating umeshu brings forward a stronger aroma and deepens its richness. On the other hand, chilled umeshu has a refreshing tang, heightened by a well-balanced acidity. The light almond sweetness also comes through at room temperature.
Umeshu cocktails can provide a fresh, often bubbly way to enjoy umeshu. Especially when freshly made, umeshu can have a syrupy body. Diluting with water, mixers, or simply over ice. Given its mild acidity and sweetness, umeshu pairs well with several spirits, particularly gin and whiskey. Soda water and tonic also complement the alcohol’s sour notes while maintaining its fruitiness. For a more traditional twist, umeshu can be enjoyed ochawari, or with green tea, warmed or chilled depending on the season.
On its own, umeshu is best when paired with dessert or as an aperitif. Most people serve umeshu with one of the steeped plums. The sweetened, boozy plum can be eaten to finish the drink with a tart and juicy burst of flavor.
Umeshu is a sweet and sour way to enjoy Japanese culture and traditional alcohol any time of year. The tart Japanese plums and rich shochu carry the essence of Japan in a timeless, easily accessible combination.
The simplicity of umeshu offers a great deal of flexibility in how to enjoy it. Brewing umeshu at home provides greater control over alcohol content and flavor profile in a beginner-friendly process.