Japanese umeshu (梅酒, pronounced u-may-shu) is a delicious, aromatic, wonderful alcohol drink from Japan that you have to try. It’s hands-down my favorite drink from Japan. Umeshu is often mischaracterized as “Japanese plum wine”, but is closer to a fruit cordial or fruit liqueur. It’s made from allowing green unripe Japanese ume plums and rock sugar steep in a clear distilled alcohol called shochu (焼酎) for several months. Shochu itself is an incredibly popular drink in Japan (and South Korea), which the Japanese drink WAY more than the traditional sake (pronounced sa-keh, not sa-ki).
Umeshu is typically 15%-20% alcohol and can be enjoyed straight, on the rocks, or mixed with carbonated water.
It is a common tradition for Japanese people to make their own umeshu during the summer and I did the same. I was thrilled when I was able to make it this past summer in the United States as well. I’ll explain how and tell you where to look for ingredients and what substitutes can work.
For those who have never tried it or don’t want to make it, Choya and other brands of umeshu (pictured to the right), can be found at good and larger alcohol retailers in the U.S. Especially look for alcohol retailers in areas with a high Asian populations. The picture to the right is a 750ml bottle of Choya that I used to buy at the local grocery store in Japan for 900 yen. It’s more than double that ($20) here in the U.S.
This recipe can be halved, doubled, or adjusted to personal preferences with more or less sugar. This version is pretty much the standard however.
- 1 kg. (2.2lbs) green ume
- 1.8 liters shochu (or shoju as Korean’s call it.)
- 500 g (1.1 lbs) rock sugar
- Wide-mouth glass jar with airtight lid large enough so you can put in all of your ingredients and have a little air space at the top.
Ume are grown in Japan and South Korea (and possibly other parts of Asia), and are a wonderful flavoring for drinks, candy, and various things. They’re referred to as “green plums”, but seem more like small green apricots that never seem to properly ripen. They are pretty hard but soften and turn orange as they age. They’re not good for eating fresh on their own and not very good for umeshu after they age and turn orange. The ones in bottles of umeshu however, are very delicious to eat! They turn a dark color and soften as they absorb the shochu and sugar and make a nice compliment to the drink. These are the same ume that umeboshi (pickled plums often served on top of rice), are made from.
Ume season is typically around May or June and very short in my experience both in Japan and buying them at a Korean grocery in the U.S. So start looking May 1st and keep checking weekly!
You’re most likely to find ume at a larger Japanese or Korean grocery. See the More Information section at the bottom of this page for links to some Korean grocery chains in the U.S. that carry them. I believe there are also companies you can mail order them from on-line. Please contact me if you know additional locations to buy them and I’ll post them here.
Shochu (written as shoju by Korean brands):
Shochu is a clear distilled spirit that the Japanese and Koreans drink lots of. There are many variations made from various grains and even potatoes. It’s strength varies from 18% to 35%. Shochu has a subtle flavor which varies based what it’s made of.
In Japan I used a double distilled 35% shochu called ホワイト・リカー (“white liquer”), which is sold in milk style paper cartons and intended for making umeshu. My local fine liquor store sells some expensive, high-end Japanese brands which I didn’t want to use because of the price and out of concern that they might have too much of their own character and not let the ume flavor shine through. Instead I chose to go with the cheaper Korean brand Chamisul (left in the picture.) Chamisul is cheap and comes is a class-less plastic bottle. It is only 20.1% but it worked extremely well making a delicious umeshu. Shortly after making last year’s batch I found a store with Jinro shochu which is 24% and has a very clean, neutral flavor when you drink it straight. So I’ll try that brand this year. Other options were Charm and Chumcharum which are 20% and 18%.
Rock sugar is just normal sugar in very large solid crystal chunks. This form is desirable because it melts slowly as the slow process of the flavor leaching out of the ume happens. Not all regular grocery stores carry it but you can find it at many Asian grocery stores including smaller Chinese ones. Chinese brands are sometimes labeled as “candy” as the one I used was (pictured to the right).
Be sure what you’re buying pure rock sugar. If the ingredients on the back list anything other than sucrose and water or the crystals have a yellowish tint to them it’s not what you’re looking for.
Step 1 – Separate out the bad ume
The ume will sit in the shochu for several weeks so it’s very important that they be cleaned and prepared properly to ensure a fresh, clean, good-tasting drink. Separate out any that have brown spots, bruises, gashes, or that have turned too orange.
Step 2 – Remove the remnant of the stem
Take a toothpick or pointed bamboo skewer and gently pop out the remnant of the stem. Try not to break the skin and try to gently remove any crud that may be around it. I’ve been told that this little stub can add bitterness to the umeshu and it looks dirty if they come lose and are in the umeshu.
Step 3 – Thoroughly wash the ume and gently stab each one with a clean fork or skewer
Gently wash them in plenty of fresh clean water and sit them out on a clean paper towel to dry. With washed clean hands take a fork or skewer and gently stab just a few holes into the sides of each ume. This will help the juice and flavor to diffuse out and the alcohol to infuse in. I usually do one row on holes from a fork or a few holes from a skewer. Because they will be going into the shocu in a few minutes they won’t turn colors or bruise from this.
Step 4 – Clean and semi-sterilize your glass jar
I had a glass jar that I bought for this purpose in Japan, in the U.S. I used a big glass food storage jar that I found in the kitchen wares section of Walmart. Wash it with dish detergent and a clean sponge, then rinse it with really hot water. Japanese will sometimes wipe down the inside with a clean paper towel wetted with shochu or pour a few capfuls of shochu in and swirl it around to semi-sterilize the inside.
Step 5 – layer the ume and the sugar in the jar
Add some of the ume so you are covering the bottom of the jar, then drop in some of the sugar in a layer over top of them. Then add in another layer of ume on top of that and more sugar. Try to pace it out so that you end with some sugar on the top layer.
Step 6 – Slowly pour in the shochu
Slowly pour in the shochu. Try to keep the layers of ume and sugar intact. Once you’ve covered the ume and sugar with your shochu put on the lid unless it is metal. Ume are very acidic and metal is very reactive and likely to corrode to contribute a metalic tastes to your umeshu (yuk!) If you have a metal lid, put down a layer of plastic wrap over the jar’s opening then screw the lid on overtop that to separate the metal from the contents.
Step 7 – Patiently wait for deliciousness to happen
Place your sealed glass jar in a dark, dry, room temperature to cool, place like a closet. After a few weeks when the sugar is mostly melted, the ume are starting to float to the top, and the shochu has turned a light clear greenish brown you can gently swirl or shake the jar occasionally to help it along. After 6-8 weeks it will look and smell like umeshu but won’t taste very good yet. Then after 3-5 months the flavor matures and becomes much smoother and it’s ready to drink.
My last batch tasted somewhat punchy and a little bitter at 2 months and I thought I had failed with the ingredients I used, but after 4 months the flavor matured and it was some of the best I ever made.
If you keep it sealed and at a constant room temperature umeshu will keep for years. But if the jar starts getting empty with a ton of air space at the top I recommend transferring it to a smaller jar.
Step 8 – Enjoy responsibly!
- Choya, a Japanese maker of umeshu (English web site)
- Hmart – a Korean grocery store chain with locations across the US where I’ve bought ume. They are GREAT for finding Japanese stuff as well and well worth even a 1-2 hr drive to get to.
- Lotte Plaza – a Korean grocery store chain with locations in MD, VA, and soon FL. Like Hmart they carry a wide selection of Asian groceries and Japanese and worth a 1-2 hour drive to get to.
- Wikipedia list of Asian supermarket chains
- If you know of any other good Asian grocery chains with multiple locations in the US that sell ume please contact me and I’ll include it here.