Umeshu, often translated into English as "Japanese plum wine," is a typical drink you'll find all over Japan. It's on almost every bar and izakaya menu, though many also make their very own batch at home. But unlike sake, umeshu is relatively unknown outside of Japan, and visitors may need to have this wonderfully versatile, classic drink demystified. We're here to do just that and to share the wonderful world of Japanese plum wine with you.
Already in Japan? Be your best creative self at this sip and paint experience in Harajuku, where you can paint Mt. Fuji with a sparkling umeshu in hand.
What is Umeshu?
Umeshu is often translated as "plum wine," but this is a little misleading because it's actually not like any other kind of wine at all. (But if you do want to learn more about the grape-based wines here — we have a complete guide to Japanese wines to help you out). In truth, umeshu is closer to a fruit liqueur, where fruits are steeped in strong alcohol and sugar for several months. This is a common practice all over the world and was historically a means to preserve fruit or make medicine.
And the origins of umeshu in Japan don't stray so far from that. It was at first prescribed by Japanese doctors as a medicine for throat troubles. At the time, Japan was strictly Buddhist, and the consumption of alcohol was not allowed except for medicinal purposes. When Japan entered its pre-war period, the ban on alcohol was lifted. With plum trees all over Japan and sugar increasingly available in the country thanks to new trade deals, umeshu became a cheap and easy liqueur to make in bulk at home.
What is Umeshu Made Of?
It may surprise you to know that umeshu is a relatively simple recipe. The main ingredient is Japanese plums (sometimes called Japanese apricots). These plums grow all over Japan and are a relative of the decorative flowering plum trees. After that, all you need is a sweetener like sugar, rock sugar, or honey and a strong, 35% (70-proof) alcohol — and lots of it! Fruit liqueurs in the West are often made with vodka, gin, or other clear spirits. In Japan, the default alcohol for making umeshu is shochu.
Umeshu vs. Sake: What are the Differences?
Japanese sake, in its English definition, refers to Japan's national drink, an alcoholic beverage made with rice, water and koji mold. These three ingredients ferment over time, creating the strong liquor, sometimes called "rice wine." (Again, also not quite wine.) In Japanese, you'd refer to sake as nihonshu (sake is an umbrella term for all alcohol in Japanese). Although sometimes sake breweries get creative and produce infused sakes, using fruit or sugar is not standard in sake production.
Fermentation is essential to brewing sake — it's during the fermentation steps that the glucose from the rice transforms into alcohol — but there is no fermentation process involved in making umeshu, which is why you need shochu as a base.
How to Make Umeshu: Easy Japanese Plum Wine Recipe
Come June, you're likely to spot bags upon bags of Japanese plums and even umeshu-making kits at local supermarkets. Grab as many plums as you can physically carry, pick up your sugar and shochu, and you're good to go. If you are outside Japan, check with your local Asian supermarket if they stock Japanese plums and when you can expect to find them.
Although you may have to leave your soaking plums alone for several months before breaking into your fresh umeshu supplies, it's well worth the wait.
What You Need to Make Umeshu at Home: Ingredients & Equipment
You'll need 1kg of plums and a large, airtight jar with a capacity of at least 3-4 liters. It sounds like a lot, but the plums will release their juices as they infuse, and you don't want your jar to overflow or leak!
You'll also need 1kg of rock sugar. Rock sugar dissolves more slowly than granulated sugar, which helps the infusing process. Finally, you need at least 1.8 liters of at least 35% (70-proof) alcohol for consumption. Note that anything less than this will not be sufficient to kill the harmful bacteria that may get mixed up with your batch during the preparation process, and it can lead to your batch rotting or spoiling.
You can grab a standard white liquor, a flavorless 35% alcohol explicitly sold to make fruit-infused drinks if you're in Japan. It usually comes in cartons of 1.8 liters — perfect for a single batch of umeshu. Alternatively, get your hands on some shochu to keep it authentic.
Step 1: Clean Everything!
Scrub your hands, including under your nails. Although the amount of sugar and alcohol in umeshu is enough to kill most bacteria, it's better to be safe than sorry.
Next, wash your jar with kitchen soap and water, blanch the insides of it thoroughly with boiling water, and leave it to air dry. Do not dry it with a towel — this could introduce bits of fluff to your batch, along with any bacteria hitching a ride! Once it's dry, put a little of the alcohol you'll be using on a paper towel and wipe around the inside of the jar. Leave it to air dry again. This will sanitize your jar.
Finally, thoroughly wash individual plums with water and dry them with a paper towel. This is tedious work, but it's necessary to make sure your batch doesn't spoil. If there are any bits of stem left in your plums, pry them out with a toothpick before washing so that you can clean out any dirt hiding underneath. Dry each plum and set them aside as you go.
If you come across any plums with suspicious brown or rotten patches, throw them away.
Step 2: Sweeten It Up
Measure your sugar. Sounds easier said than done, but here's where things get tricky, as this depends on how sweet or sour you like your umeshu!
If you like it sweet, use a 1:1 ratio of rock sugar and plums. If you're using 1 kg of plums, measure 1kg of sugar. If you prefer your umeshu sour, you can measure 500 to 600g of sugar for 1kg of plums. But if you aren't sure, play it safe and go for something in the 700 to 800g rock sugar range for 1kg of plums.
Step 3: Layer Up
Begin layering the fruit and rock sugar in your jar, starting with a layer of fruit, then adding a layer of sugar, and so on. Don't worry if your layers aren't perfect; this is just to help the sugar mix sufficiently with the fruits.
Step 4: Bring on the Alcohol
Pour all 1.8L of white liquor, shochu, vodka, or whatever you're using over the sugar and the fruit.
Step 5: Seal and Wait for the Goodness!
You're all done! Seal the jar up nicely and tightly and put it away in a cool place away from direct sunlight. Underneath the kitchen sink is a great place, as is under a bed or in a cool cupboard. Slap a label with the date on the jar to help you track when it'll be good to drink. It's a good idea to take the jar out every couple of weeks or whenever you remember to give the thing a good shake.
After about six months, the umeshu will be ready to drink. At this point, it's a good idea to do a taste test and see if you're happy with how things are coming along. If you are satisfied with the flavor, you can remove the plums (you can eat them too — they'll be very sweet!) and finally serve yourself a glass of homemade umeshu.
You can wait up to a year to drink it. Our tip is to remove the fruit at six months. If you are happy with the flavor, leave it out to mature just a little bit more. Leaving the plums in longer than six months might make the batch edge of the more bitter side — but if that's your jam, go for it!
Video: How to Make Japanese Plum Wine
How to Drink Umeshu
So you've made your first batch of umeshu. Now what? How do you drink this beautiful, honey-colored nectar? There are three popular ways of drinking umeshu in Japan: on the rocks, with soda, or with hot water.
Umeshu on the Rocks
This one is as simple as it sounds. Just pour as much (or as little!) as you like over ice and enjoy.
Umeshu with Soda
Put ice, if you want it, into your glass, followed by equal parts umeshu and soda water. Mix well.
Umeshu with Hot Water
If you choose hot water, make sure you are drinking from a heat-proof cup or mug instead of a glass. Add your umeshu and then pour in equal parts boiling water. Mix and drink when it's cool enough to do so. This is a popular way to consume umeshu in Japan's chilly winter!
If you're feeling adventurous, you could make a few umeshu cocktails. A simple umeshu cocktail is an umeshu highball, which is popular in Japan. Throw in your ice and then add one part umeshu and one part whisky, and top it up with as much soda water as you like. Again, you can up either of the alcohol parts to your liking.
Pairings: What Foods Go Well with Umeshu?
As umeshu is so ubiquitous in Japan, this is quite hard to say with certainty! However, for an authentic taste, you'll want to pair umeshu with some izakaya staples. Salt-grilled or fried chicken dishes are a good place to start — yakitori or karaage if you can find them!
Umeshu also goes brilliantly with anything that has nori, or Japanese seaweed.
Ready to Put Your Umeshu Expertise to the Test?
On your next visit to Japan, why not sample various bottles and brands to see which flavor you like best, or head to a local bar and ask for an umeshu cocktail? Back at home, you can impress your friends with your umeshu-making abilities. Batches divided into smaller bottles also make great gifts, and it's an unusual and fun drink to bring to a potluck or dinner party. The possibilities of umeshu are endless.
Need help figuring out where to start? Taste umeshu and other Japanese bar staples on a bar-hopping tour in Kichijoji.