Just as the rainy season hits Japan and we mourn the passing of spring’s blossoms, one upside is the arrival of ume (Japanese plums). They are more closely related to the apricot despite the name and have a bitter, sour taste. Whether unripe or ripe, ume shouldn’t be eaten raw as it may cause a stomachache.
After the winter, plum blossoms lose their petals in late February. Nature does its thing, and by mid-May to early June, you can find ume on store shelves.
Glass jars, bags of rock sugar and super-sized shochu (Japanese distilled spirit) or “white liquor” will also be strategically arranged nearby. Ume has several uses in the kitchen, one of which being umeshu—a sweet and heady liqueur made by steeping ume in shochu and sugar.
While you can purchase commercially made umeshu, there’s something a little bit special about making it yourself. A forewarning, get ready to strap in for the long haul with this recipe as it takes a year to make!
Ingredients & equipment
When selecting your bag of ume, try to find fruit that is mostly green and unbruised.
- 1 kilogram unripe, green ume
- 700 grams rock sugar (look for 氷砂糖)
- 1.8 liter shochu or “white liquor”
- 4 liter glass jar
- Rinse and pat dry the ume. Using a toothpick, remove any remaining stems. Discard any ume that are bruised, blemished or ripened.
- Thoroughly sterilize the glass jar, rinse well and allow it to dry completely. Wipe the inside of the jar with shochu using a clean cloth. The jar must be squeaky clean before any ingredients are added to it. Otherwise, you risk having to throw away all that hard work due to mold and bacteria growth.
- Weigh out the amount of rock sugar you wish to use. About 700g will produce a sweet yet tangy beverage, but feel free to experiment. Anywhere between 500g to 1kg should be good. My recipe is based on using 1kg of ume, so if you end up with less after discarding any unusable ume, adjust accordingly. (I ended up with about 845g of ume, so I used 590g of sugar.)
- Place a single layer of ume in the glass jar and cover it with a layer of rock sugar. Repeat this, layering until all the fruit and rock sugar is used.
- Pour over the shochu! The jar will be nowhere near full, but don’t be alarmed. The liquid content will increase over time because of science.
- Seal the lid, make sure to record the date somewhere on the jar and store it in a cool, dark place for one year. NOT IN THE FRIDGE!
- One year later, dust yourself off, pour a glass of umeshu over ice (or to your liking) and enjoy, responsibly. Remove the now wrinkled ume from the jar. They taste great in cocktails, savory dishes, as preserves or even straight from the jar!
You can continue to store your umeshu in a cool dark place, and it should keep indefinitely provided the jar was properly cleaned and good ume were used.
How did it come out?
My umeshu was prepared one year ago with much success. It took about two to three months for the rock sugar to dissolve completely and for the liquid to start changing color. The ume also started to wrinkle up around this time.
After making umeshu for the first time, I started coming across other ideas such as adding shiso leaves to the layering process or replacing the ume with yuzu to make yuzushu. For those who don’t drink alcohol but still want to enjoy the ume flavor, there is ume hachimitsu—a sweet and sour drink made with ume, honey and vinegar.
Additionally, while shochu is typically used as the steeping liqueur, it’s not uncommon to use brandy, vodka, sake, or any hard liquor over 35% ABV (alcohol by volume). There are many possibilities and variations to this recipe which, of course, means investing in more than one jar for future experimentation.
Admittedly, there was some quality-assurance testing carried out about six months into the steeping process. While drinkable, there was a lingering tartness and lack of depth in flavor that encouraged the lid to be resealed and the jar put back away for another six months.
Enter spring 2021, and in stark contrast to my corona life for the past year, it was time for the umeshu to emerge from its lair. Golden and brilliant, sweet and rich, perfect on the rocks or with a dash of soda water. It was worth the wait.
Have you made something else with ume? How do you enjoy your umeshu? On the rocks or mixed? Let us know in the comments! Also, be sure to check out our other Japanese recipes.