Making umeshu (japanese plum wine)
Posted by mracine on June 12, 2016
My wife asked me to blog about this experience. I hope you enjoy it.
Today I am making umeshu also known as Japanese Plum wine. The English name for this fruity alcoholic drink is a misnomer for several reasons. First, it’s not wine. It’s technically a cordial or liqueur. Second, the fruit, ume, which is used to make umeshu isn’t a plum. It comes from that same family as plumbs and apricots, but has its own distinctive taste. I can only assume the reasons for misnaming the drink are the same reasons why bison and Native Americans were called Buffalo and Indians. Some idiot called them that and everyone went with it. The Japanese went a little on the nose with naming the drink umeshu. They just used the fruit name and put the word alcohol at the end. Their creativity always astounds me.
To make umeshu, you need just 3 ingredients. Obviously, you need ume. However, deciding the ripeness of the fruit impacts the final flavor. For most traditional umeshu, you would use greenish unripe ume. This provides a bite to the final flavor by adding tartness and acidity. If you decide to use a riper ume which looks yellowish red, you end up with a sweeter taste but lose some of its distinct flavor.
The next ingredient is rock sugar. You want to use rock sugar over regular sugar because …. Well, maybe it effects how the sugar gets distributed over the ume? Or maybe it’s easier to measure? Or maybe the directions told me to do it this way and who am I to question traditional Japanese customs? BTW, if you want your Umeshu to taste sweeter all you need to do is add more sugar. I know, right? I blew your frinken mind.
The last ingredient is alcohol. The Japanese use shochu, but I am using soju. “What’s the difference?” you might ask. Oh, you didn’t!? Well, I’m going to tell you anyways. Soju is by far Korea’s favorite alcoholic beverage and has been for a long time. Shochu became popular in Japan around 2003. Soju is mass produced and relatively cheap. Shochu has more brands and varied flavors, but usually cost more. Also, shochu usually has a higher alcohol percentage.
In America, you might have had shochu even if what you drank was called soju. This is because soju isn’t considered a hard liquor and you don’t need a hard liquor license to sell it. The Japanese, coming to the party late, lowered their shochu to 25% or less alcohol and slapped soju on the label to get around regulations. Pride and craftsmanship means little to the all mighty dollar.
To be honest shochu and soju have similar tastes to me. Soju is slightly sweeter and has a more consistent taste. This is because the alcohol is distilled several times and the flavors are added afterwards. On the other hand, Shochu is usually distilled once and the mild flavors aren’t as filtered. Overall they both taste like a weak vodka. Vodka is also an alternative ingredient if you can’t get your hands on soju or sochu.
When making umeshu, you just need a white liquor somewhere between 20-40% alcohol. I had a 5 liter bottle from my trip to Korea, so I used that. Usually when making umeshu in Japan, you would use a neutral flavored shochu. Because the ume fruit is the main flavoring, buying expensive alcohol isn’t necessary. Unless you’re the kind of person who insist on using “grey goose” with their Sunny-D flavor screw drivers.
Here is a picture of everything I need to make umeshu and a container to store it in.
- 2 liters of ume
- 1 liter of rock sugar
- 5 liters of soju
- 5 liter container
Now, I know what you’re thinking. How am I going to fit everything in a 5 liter container? Well, I can’t. Doing the math, you probably figured out that I need to drink 3 liters of soju. Hey, I never said making umeshu was going to be easy.
The container gave me directions. However, trying to read Japanese in an intoxicated state makes it difficult… Plus, I can’t read Japanese. Luckily, the pictures are easy enough.
I heard putting the ume in a container of water for a few hours takes away some of the fruit’s bitterness. So I let the fruit soak while I sobered up a bit. After a few hours, I washed and rinsed the fruit a few times.
The next step is to remove the stems. Yes. Yes. The directions that came with the container says remove the stems first and then rinse them. However, I feel superior to a glass jar and I do what I want.
Removing the stems was very easy. Just stick in something sharp and it pops right off. While removing the stems, I was on the lookout for bruised or rotten fruit. I found only one.
After giving the fruit another rinse… Never defy the glass container directions! You need to dry all the fruit. So wipe them all dry with a clean paper towel.
The next step… or maybe this was the first step (oh, glass container I failed you!)? I needed to clean the glass container. I suppose this was the first step to give time for the container to dry. Anyways, I just used paper towel and soju to sanitize the container. Good enough, right!?
Next was putting everything in the container. First some ume fruit.
Then some rock sugar.
Then more fruit and more sugar. The container should mostly full but not all the way to the top.
The last step was to add in the alcohol. I was sure to leave some space on top. From what I’m told, the juices expand a bit. So how does the contents in an enclosed container increase? Well, it can’t. What I think happens is that osmosis causes the liquid from the ume to exit the fruit. The ume fruit doesn’t float at the start of this process but sometimes does so in the end. So one can conclude the increase of juice is caused by the displacement of liquid from inside the fruit to the outside. Science! Hell, yeah!
Or… maybe the sugar changes increases the density of the alcohol and that causes the fruit to float. Then the answer to this riddle is “magic.”
After all this work, the only thing to do now is wait. I placed the bottle in a cool dark location. It takes about 6 months for fruit to steep and impart it flavors into the alcohol. I will need to shake the bottle a few times ever couple of weeks, because the sugar will settle to the bottom. I’ve heard that Umeshu tastes best 1 or 2 years in. But I will be amazed if I’ll last the 6 months.
If you’re curious what the unripe ume taste like, see if you can tell from Josie’s reaction.
I’m going to hazard a guess, and say this is the reason why so much sugar is needed.
As for saving money, you’ll save close to half. 700 yen for the container. 1200 yen for the ume. 300 yen for the rock sugar. 800 yen for the soju. So a total about 3000 yen for a 5 liters. I think cheap plum wine cost somewhere between 700-1,500 yen liter. If you make it again using the same container, you’ll save even more.