So long before I headed over to Japan I had a long term fascination with the sweet boozy nectar that is umeshu梅酒, a traditional Japanese spirit of which the primary ingredient is Green Ume 青梅. All too often mistranslated as ‘plum wine’ in English, both these words are more or less lost in translation as ume are in fact not plums at all but are a variety of Japanese apricot, also since the average Umeshu tends to be about 40%+ alcohol its closer to hard liquor than a wine!!
In Australia I often drank shouchuu 焼酎 (the liquor ingredient of the Umeshu) in place of vodka simply because it was so very very cheap. Here in Japan though the price of liquor I have found tends to be between ¼-⅓ of the equivalent in Australia depending on what your drinking which has really given me the freedom to drink whatever I like since it’s so affordable. Needless to say making umeshu was on my Japan bucket list; fortunately my arrival into the country coincided with ume’s coming into season and with it the perfect time to brew umeshu!!
So the basics of any umeshu are you’re going to need 4 things and with a standard batch these are the ratios you will be needing:
A large glass jar (preferably 4-5l) with a double seal
If like I you happen to find yourself living in Japan procuring such a jar will be of little trouble to you as they sell specially made Umeshu double sealed glass jars in the supermarkets with the other ingredients, if not well you’re not out of luck, basically what you’re looking for is a large thick glass jar that can be sealed tightly as its possible its contents may sit in there for years!
1kg of fresh Unripened Ume (Ao-Ume 青梅)
Litteraly blue ume, I went for the slightly larger variety of what was on offer at my supermarket as apparently the smaller ones tend to be on the sour side of things.
1kg of rock sugar (Koori Zatou 氷砂糖)
Now honestly you can use any kind of sugar because well sugar is sugar, however Koori Zatou (literally Ice Sugar) tends to be used most frequently as its bundled together with the other ingredients in the umeshu displays at supermarkets, and it looks pretty in the jar before it dissolves.
1.8 Litres of White Liquor (焼酎)
This stuff is sold in huge milk carton type containers and is 70proof liquor that resembles shochuu. Some people choose to omit this ingredient and use brandy instead as it gives the Umeshu a sweeter flavour. But personally I’m not a huge fan of brandy to begin with and since your white liquor is only going to set you back around 1200-1300円 for the whole carton not using it is sure to bump up the cost of your brew.
Toothpicks (Tsumayouji 爪楊枝)
Or preferably bamboo skewers, these are used to remove any remaining stems from your Ume to make their 100% clean and poke holes in them before you subject them to a year’s worth of deliciousfication.
A friend of mine a 3rd year JET who has been making umeshu since he arrived, strongly recommended a variation to the traditional recipe which he claims to be the most delicious beverage he has ever tasted! So rather than going down the straight and narrow taking his advice and my chances I decided on making Cherry Brandy Umeshu.
To take it up a level you’re going to need the extra:
200 grams of fresh cherries
100-200mls of Brandy (add as much as you like depending on how much you like brandy)
So now I presume you have obtained all the components for your brew, good job you’re awesome! Now onto how exactly how to go about turning these unappetizing ingredients into the nectar of the gods!
1. Clean the glass jar thoroughly, if you can get your hands on the heatproof variety, boiling water will do the trick. Make sure it is 100% dry before you add any ingredients.
2. Wash and de-stem your ume, ensuring that they are well washed and dry before you put them into the jar. As even a small amount of residual water can cause the fruit to go mouldy under the liquor, I recommend patting them down with paper towel then letting them air dry for a couple hours before moving on the next step. You will also want to spot check each and every ume for blemishes removing any that have bruises or broken skin.
3. Layer you’re ume and rock sugar in waves in the jar, if you like you can also prick small holes in the ume with a toothpick before you send them to their boozy graves (2 or 3 per ume), this step is not essential but will help the liquor permeate the ume and speed up the process. Also the whole layering process is pretty much just for aesthetics and completely up to you, as after 24 hours the bulk of your sugar is going to have dissolved and the ume will have floated to the top anyway. I chose to because 1 it is fun and 2 it looks cool =P
4. Pour in the 1.8 litre carton of white liquor, if you are comfortable with the wrist tiling action frequently used to add milk to a cup of coffee then I’m sure you will have this step down tiger.
5. Adding in additional flavours to personalize your brew. So here is the extra step that I did but is completely up to you, basically there is a plethora of extra ingredients you can add to your Umeshu. I simply just cleaned 200grams of cherries in the same fashion to the ume and adding them in along with about 200ml of a nice brandy. If cherries and brandy aren’t your thing a couple of the other variations I’ve heard of include garlic, strawberries or grapes in place of the cherries and alongside this you could also use any kind of nice spirit in place of the brandy, from what I gather gin or vodka will give you a harsher end product where sweet brandy/bourbon/whisky will make it even more so sweet and delicious (I was considering Canadian club or Drambuie before I settled on Brandy).
6. Seal up your jar, put it in a cool dark place (think basement) and forget about it for the next 6-12 months. OK well this isn’t entirely true, as for the first couple weeks you’re going to want to check up on it every day or two and give it a shake to make sure all the sugar dissolves and none of the ume are going mouldy. Honestly so far I haven’t had any issues with the ume but about half my cherries have started to shrivel and die so I have been removing them from the batch as this occurs.
7. And now we play the waiting game…… Honestly you can leave this stuff to sit for years if you really want and it’s only going to get better with time but assuming you made it at the start of the season (Early June) it should be good to crack open for Christmas, I know I will be packing some of my batch up to bring to my family when I head back home in December ^____^
So there you have it, not really rocket science but certainly a super fun way to kill a couple hours on a rainy day if you’re bored, also it only cost me like go-sen (about $60AUD) to make 2 litres of it so it’s certainly affordable, I’ll be sure to write a follow up post when I crack this bad boy open in another couple months!