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 cocktail and drink umeshu instead – it is sweet, tangy, aromatic, moreish… Umeshu is often mixed with soda water or used as a cocktail base.
Umeshu varies in strength, but typically has around 12% alcohol, although the alcohol content will vary from 5% to 20%.
Umeshu, yuzushu, gingershu…
Umeshu is not the only variety of fruit liquor. Recently, its cousins have been gaining popularity. Yuzu (Japanese citrus) makes a highly drinkable yuzushu, ginger – gingershu….get it? Making of those beverages is somewhat different. Yuzushu, for example, is made by mixing yuzu juice or pulp with sake, instead of steeping whole fruit. The end result is not as intense as umeshu, but rather a tasty play on pre-mixed drinks.
The variations are only limited by the producer’s creativity. There are savoury varieties, too, made with tea or shiso leaves (herb ordinarily used to flavour meats, dumplings and rice balls in Japan).
What to drink?
Choya is a big, popular umeshu behemoth, and umeshu is its main product. Quite often, they have a fancy display of ume fruit inside their bottles. Plenty available for sale in Australia.
Many sake breweries produce their own umeshu brand or two. The lovers of sake will appreciate this sake-based umeshu from Kubota Shuzo. Chef’s Armoury exclusively imports it into Australia, and it is available from their online store. A delicious, full-bodied umeshu experience.
Another favourite of mine is also from Chef’s Armoury Sakeshop, Hanzo Umeshu. It is a supremely balanced umeshu, edging towards dry side, make with quality sake.
A particular brand of yuzushu – Eikun brewery’s You’s Time Light has been making great strides into the Australian bar scene. It has only 5% alcohol, so makes for a refreshing alternative to beer or cider.
However, if I had to drink yuzushu, I would be selecting this little friend from the same brewer, Eikun. Full strength yuzushu (12% alcohol), it is made with ginjō sake and has wonderful ricey sake notes peeking through the yuzu dominance. This is just a cocktail in a bottle. Dip the rim of the glass into salt, pour You’s Time in, add a few ice cubes…you might like it better than a margarita.