Making Umeshu: a sign of early summer

This morning my doorbell rang just as I was finishing my hausfrau duties (dishes, laundry, etc.). It was my friendly, neighborhood Sagawa Kyubin delivery man with a small box, a care package from my friend Kana.

Kana lives in her family home in Nagano Prefecture and, like many “country folk”, has a big fruit and veggie garden behind her house. Today’s care package turned out to be about a kilogram of green plums off her tree. Yes, folks! It’s the season to make umeshu, variously called in English Japanese plum wine or Japanese plum liqueur.

Since I had just finished my other chores, I decided to plunge right into umeshu making.  It’s not at all difficult, especially since I now had all the ingredients: 1 kilo of green plums, 1/2 to 1 kilo of rock sugar (I’m using about 800 grams today), 1.8 liters of white liquor (35%), and a great big glass jar. Note: the final ingredient is patience, since after assembly, one must wait at least three months (I prefer to open mine at Christmas, actually).

The first step is to prepare the fruit. I washed mine in slightly vinegared water, to remove any pesticides, pollution or other unwanted substances. Umeshu is made with green, unripened plums, which apparently are poisonous to eat (well, what green fruit isn’t going to make you sick?). A key point to keep in mind when handling the fruit is that green plums don’t react well to metal–use glass, wood or plastic.

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After washing the fruit, remove the stems from each plum. For the most part, the only part of the stem still attached to the fruit is just a tiny brown nib buried deep in the stem scar (the fruit’s belly button, if you will). If this is not removed, the umeshu will be spoiled.

Removing these little nibs can be a bit fiddly. I usually use a bamboo skewer (a la yakitori), but a toothpick would work just as well.  Wedge the point under the edge of the brown nib and usually it pops right off.  Sometimes you have to dig a bit, and sometimes it breaks, so you have to remove all the pieces.

Once all the fruit has been de-stemmed, give it a final rinse and pat dry with a paper towel. You don’t want any residual water in your mix.

Next, get your big umeshu jar.  This time of year, various sizes are on sale across Japan. You want one large enough that it will be about 2/3 full when everything has been inserted.

Place about 1/3 of the fruit in the bottom of the jar and cover it with about 1/3 of the sugar, repeat twice more.

Then add the white liquor and close up the jar. That’s it!

Store the jar in a dark place (under the sink works well), taking it out every couple of weeks to give it a bit of a shake, helping the sugar dissolve properly into the alcohol.  While the umeshu will be ready to drink in about three months, the longer you let it “stew”, the deeper and more intense the flavor. Once it’s ready, I often put mine into old wine bottles and give it away to friends.

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By the way, those plums that were poisonous when green, will be pickle in the alcohol, rendering them edible.  I often cut the pickled fruit off the pit and throw it in when I’m making a fruit compote.

There are lots of different ways to enjoy umeshu. One of my favorites is on ice. Folks who don’t want the dilution of ice may want to refrigerate their umeshu. Some people even freeze it and mush it up frozen Marguerita style.

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On a warm summer afternoon, when sitting in the garden with friends, umeshu and soda makes a refreshing, sparkling drink. In winter, heat it like sake, or mix it with hot water to make a kind of alcoholic tea.  Some of my friends say this can be very soothing on a sore throat.

For those who are adventurous, or perhaps can’t lay their hands on green plums, there are alternative fruit liqueurs to make.  The carton containing the white liquor helpfully provided recipes for such varieties as lemon, yuzu, apricot, pear, kiwi and strawberry. The key in each case is the preparation of the fruit–otherwise the process is pretty much the same.

Last year a friend gave me a gift of Yamagata cherries so I tried making cherry liqueur. The recipe I used called for the addition of a lemon and the end result tastes like strong cough syrup. So much for me being adventurous.

I have determined there’s no beating umeshu, a versatile home-made alcoholic beverage and an intrinsic part of this early summer season!

© 2020 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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