Just as spring slips and summer arrives in Japan, before the mosquitoes swarm and the thick humidity hits in earnest, ume leads the charge into the new season.
Ume, Japanese plums, are just as much a part of Japanese art and life as sakura, cherry blossoms. The trees bloom earlier, at the end of winter and as spring just begins, making them the real harbinger of spring—especially as branches get filled in with leaves, and then the small, green fruit.
Don’t be wooed into tasting the raw ume; the fruit is tart, bitter, and stoney, and more importantly contains amygdalin, which breaks down into hydrogen cyanide. Even a tiny taste may result in a stomachache; any more may be lethal. It is far better to transform the bitterness into something life-giving and delicious.
And so as soon as the ume are ready, the ume shigoto (shee-goh-toh), or “ume work,” begins.
Preparations are underway by mid-May, as shopkeepers start stocking glass canisters with red screw-top lids and labels, packages of rock sugar, and of course, bags of still-green, maybe just-yellowing ume. It seems that every grandparent in Japan—and these days, more and more young people—participate in this traditional work of processing and preserving the fleeting fruits, with some becoming sour, pickled umeboshi, and others sweet-tart ume syrup or umeshu, Japanese plum wine.
Umeshu is the long-awaited star of summer, the result of steeping green, unripe ume (ao ume) with rock sugar and hard liquor for at least six months. The resulting sweet, fragrant liqueur has been enjoyed as a shokuzen-shu—Japan’s version of an aperitif—and a restorative tonic for centuries. Taiwan, Korea, and China all have their own variations.
While umeshu is enjoyed year-round (it’s typically diluted with hot water during winter months), those first chilled glasses with ice cubes tinkling really signal the start of summer. The naturally-occurring citric acid lends a refreshing pucker, and the sweetness and alcohol levels are controlled, whether you take it straight or diluted. That first, invigorating sip of the season is as visceral as a lifeguard’s whistle-blow announcing the opening of the pool.
How to Make Your Own Umeshu
After several years making my own umeshu, each year grabbing the ume and those cartons of liquor the moment they’re out, I feel more in tune with the seasonal rhythm of Japan. Like a vintner, I can fondly think back to the best bottles from the best years we’ve had. This year, I made umeshu with our own ume, since we recently moved into a home with a 17-year-old tree.
The basic technique is clear and quite easy. You just need three ingredients and a 3- or 4-liter glass umeshu jar—buy one from an Asian grocery store, or upcycle your favorite restaurant-super-sized olive jar, one with a tight-fitting lid.
Crucially, you’ll also need patience: Your jar of steeping ume will have to sit untouched for at least six months, but ideally a year. The fruit needs this time to fully break down, infusing the spirit with its sweet fragrance, tang, and almond-like notes. Two-plus years and you’ll have something top-shelf.
The value of patience is a large theme in Japanese culture. Umeshu is the culmination of waiting for blooms in the harsh winter, then harvesting the ume in spring, and then preparing and long-steeping the umeshu for the finale of exuberant summer.
When it comes to umeshu, this gaman, the concept of simply leaving it and enduring the wait, has a great prize at the end.
The ume season is short, but if you’re lucky, you can find the fruit at Japanese and Korean grocery stores or specialty markets from mid-May through June. (If ume are simply out of reach, you can employ this same technique with a myriad of other seasonal fruits: Yuzu, lemons, grapefruit, and peaches will all break down with the sugar and spirits in the same way, though you’ll have to experiment with proportions and time).
Soak the ume in cold water, which can help flush out bitter tannins, then wash and dry the fruits well with a clean kitchen towel. Remove their stems, or heta, by gently poking them out with a wooden toothpick or skewer. Leaving the stems in, no matter how small they are, could invite unwanted moisture and bacteria growth. To ensure the cleanest environment, some even suggest giving the fruits an extra swipe with your chosen spirits.
The pits remain in the fruits, adding more flavor and citric acid, a natural preservative, to the resulting liqueur.
In Japan, umeshu is usually made with the ubiquitous “white liquor,” a near-flavorless, odorless spirit distilled from sugarcane. The liquor is indeed clear, or “white”; this way, the deepening color of the plums comes through in the final drink.
Other clear, neutral-flavored spirits, such as shochu, brandy, or vodka, also work well, as long as they’re 35 percent ABV or higher. In any case, Yukari Sakamoto, a sommelier, chef, and shochu adviser, recommends using a cheap liquor: “No need to use something expensive. It’s mainly sugar and fruit, so use the cheap spirit.”
White rock sugar, kori zato, is one-third of the total recipe; you can find it at Asian grocery stores. Unlike granulated sugar, these large, condensed chunks—more accurately translated as “ice sugar”—break down slowly over time, thus working to slowly release the fragrant essence of the plums. Think of it as time-release sugar.
Some makers have gotten fancier, using kokuto, blocks of condensed, raw black sugar from Okinawa. This is more expensive, but can result in a deeper flavor, with rich, molasses-y notes.
How to Enjoy Umeshu
A key selling point of umeshu is its flexibility. During her time as a guide and sommelier at Takashimaya Department Store, Sakamoto guided many clients and customers to umeshu.
“It was something nice to recommend to the older ladies who wanted something to drink, but [found] a bottle of wine or sake [to be] a big commitment,” she said. “Being distilled, shochu lasts a long time, but the alcohol is quite high. For this reason, I frequently recommended fruity, sweet umeshu. I would tell them, ‘You control the alcohol percentage.’”
In Japanese, we say “tekito,” meaning that people should add their own amounts of ingredients for the taste that best suits them. Remember, this is a high-octane liqueur. The flavor will be amazing straight, but not everyone wants such a high-alcohol drink.
For those who like their drinks strong, umeshu can be sipped neat, in a glass. The high alcohol content makes it feel like a fortified wine, such as a vermouth or a sherry. But it also works as a lower-ABV drink, poured over ice, or diluted with seltzer for a sparkling spritz—an easy, refreshing summer cooler.
Homemade Umeshu (Japanese Plum Wine)
- 1.1 pound (500 grams) white rock sugar (kori zato)
- 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) green ume (or seasonal fruit substitute)
- 7.5 cups (1.8 liters) white liquor, brandy, shochu, or another nontraditional spirit such as vodka or cachaça, at least 35 percent ABV
Wash a large (3- to 4-liter) glass jar with a tight-fitting lid with hot, soapy water. Let air dry completely. Then, slosh a little of the spirit around to further sterilize it.
Wash the ume well and dry completely with a clean kitchen towel. Discard any bruised, broken fruit; each plum should be whole and unblemished, leaving no openings for bacteria. Remove their stems, however small, by gently poking them out with a wooden toothpick or skewer.
Place a single layer of ume in the sterilized jar. Cover with a layer of rock sugar. Continue layering ume and rock sugar in the jar until you have used up both.
Pour the alcohol into the jar; you can also splash some onto the rings of the lid to ensure that no bacteria lingers.
Screw the top on tightly and label the jar with the current date, and the date of when you desire to pull it out from its cave, at least six months from now. Store your umeshu in the coolest, darkest part of your home, away from heat.
Enjoy your umeshu neat, on the rocks, or diluted with sparkling water (1 part umeshu to 2 or 3 parts sparkling water, or to taste). It isn’t uncommon to plop an ume from the jar in the glass, to be nibbled while sipping, or eaten at the end.
As for the leftover ume in the jar, many people pit them and make compotes, jams, or spreads for grilled meat.
A Non-Alcoholic Option
For an alternative preparation, omit the alcohol and simply macerate your ume with the same amount of rock sugar to make a thick, tangy-sweet ume syrup.
Without the liquid of the alcohol, you will need to give the plums a little push to help them break down quickly: During the first few days, gently rotate the jar several times a day. In the following weeks, take it out of its cool, dark storage place a few more times to rotate some more. Rotating helps the ume more quickly release juices and enzymes, and then helps keep the fruit wet. The sooner the ume can fully sit in that sugary enzyme bath, the less likely it is for mold to grow—sugar, without the aid of alcohol, acts as a preservative here.
Three weeks is all it takes for the syrup to be ready. Refrigeration is not necessary for the liquor, but do refrigerate the syrup. To enjoy, cut it with sparkling water to drink, stir it into cocktails, drizzle it over yogurt, or mix it into baked goods, jellies, and even salad dressing.