Hanzo Umeshu

Hanzo Umeshu

There is a delicate balance between sweet lusciousness of ume and sharpness of sake. It is viscous and velvety, but the finish is refreshingly dry.

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The beginner’s guide to umeshu

The beginner’s guide to umeshu

Sake -nihonshu – is not the be all end all of traditional Japanese liquor. In fact, over the last couple of decades, the lesser known beverages have overtaken sake. The biggest winner of the popularity contest is shochu, which is a Japanese traditional distilled liquor. Shochu tastes a little like sake, but has alcohol content closer to vodka. Another quiet achiever is umeshu. The chances are, it has sneaked onto the menu at your neighbourhood Japanese restaurant, without you ever noticing. Just like sake, umeshu is a drink with unique flavours and considerable charm, and is worth knowing more about. What’s in the name? “Umeshu” is made up of two words – “ume” (Japanese fruit, sometimes referred to as Japanese apricot), and “shu” , which is a suffix for liquor. Common English translation is “plum wine” but that’s not exactly right. In fact, ume is a unique species of fruit tree called Prunus Mume, although related to both apricot and plum.  The main point, umeshu means ume liquor. What does it taste like? Umeshu is sweet. It is definitely a dessert liquor. The sweetness comes from added sugar, rather than ume, which is quite tart. Umeshu is usually amber in colour, and has a full, heady aroma and very unusual flavour. Basically, it tastes like ume, which is a taste unique for most people outside Japan. I say “most” as Prunus Mume originated from China, and its varieties grow throughout East Asia.  Ume is full of natural acids, so the flavour of umeshu is a nice balance between acidity and sweetness. Importantly, the ume flavour components contain umami, that elusive fifth taste element that gives us a sensation of savoury goodness. Umami is found in foods that are universally acknowledged to have a special food charisma, like aged parmesan, truffles, caviar and dashi stock. That umami component is what draws people to umeshu – it is just so damn tasty! How is it made? Umeshu is made by combining ume that is not fully ripened, sugar (or honey) and shochu or sake. Shochu-based umeshu is more common, but plenty of umeshu is made with sake.  Some producers even use ginjō sake as a base. A few novel varieties are based on whisky or rum. The brewers slowly mature umeshu for up to a year in tanks, before transferring it into bottles. The slow maturation process is important for extracting the maximum flavour out of fruit. How to drink umeshu? Umeshu has full, somewhat syrupy body, due to the sugar content. A little dilution never goes astray, so serving umeshu on the rocks is a great idea. It can be an aperitif or a dessert wine. In fact, you can forgo the...

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