Japan has many local varieties of alcohol. Everyone knows the traditional ‘sake’ of course, otherwise known as Nihon-shu, which can further be categorised as either reishu (cold sake on the rocks) or atsukan (hot sake in a ceramic cup). Then there is the ever popular shou-chu. Shou-chu is made from grains and vegetables creating a hard, clear liquor. The most common ingredients of shou-chu are sweet potatoes, barley, rice, buckwheat and sugar cane.
Awamori is an Okinawan variety of shou-chu made from Thai rice (Thailand) rather than Japanese rice, giving it a smoother blend. Then there is Umeshu. Umeshu is made from apricot plums, white liquor and (white) rock sugar. It creates a white liqueur which has both a sweet and sour taste and an alcohol content of between 10 to 15 percent. Its sweet taste and aroma makes it an appealing choice even for those who don’t usually enjoy drinking alcohol.
My wife and I recently made Umeshu using plums, vodka and rock sugar. First, Mandy chose green unripened plums and removed the stalks with a toothpick, so as not to damage the fruit. The plums were then gently washed and dried by hand. We placed the plums in an 8 litre jar, then poured in the crystal sugar on top of the plums, and then added the white liquor, in this case vodka.
For an 8 litre jar, 2 kilograms of plums are required, along with 3.6 litres of white liquor (35% proof or more) and 1 kilogram of rock sugar. Sugar helps draw the juice from the plums which is then mixed with the vodka. Over time, during the fermentation process, the sugar dissolves and also becomes part of the surrounding liquid.
The jar was sealed and placed in a cool, dark place. We chose our apartment’s pantry for this purpose. Every few days, Mandy would pick up the jar and gently swirl it around for a few minutes so as to mix the contents evenly together. This process continued for three months. However, after several weeks, swirling the contents was only necessary once a week. Over several months the plums shrink and shrivel within the liquid in which they float.
Japanese restaurants serve many varieties of Umeshu and also make cocktails based on this recipe. Choya is one of the popular brands available. Umeshu can be enjoyed on the rocks, or served with tonic, soda / carbonated water, or alternatively as part of a flaming cocktail. On rare occasions, it is mixed with green tea or warm water. The convenient thing about Umeshu is that it can be enjoyed in all seasons at various temperatures; it can be served chilled, or with ice, or at room temperature or even hot for the winter season.
The plums chosen for making Umeshu most commonly come from the lower half of Japan, due to the warmer climate. The plums are in season from May to early July. This beverage has been enjoyed by Japanese people for over a thousand years, almost as long as traditional rice wine. i.e. Nihonshu aka ‘sake’. There is a certain satisfaction to be derived when consuming a home-made alcoholic beverage, knowing that you have made it with your own hands. Mandy and I have always enjoyed drinking it on the rocks, and mixed with an even amount of soda water.
It was a great hit at our summer barbecue last year. Our Japanese guests were most impressed and thought it was even better than the shop bought product. Mandy will be making it again this year and is simply waiting for the plums to come back into season. Here's raising a glass of Umeshu to you.