Let’s Make Booze: My First Attempt at Umeshu, Japanese Plum Wine

When I was a kid in 1980s Chicago, my social world revolved around other Polish-Americans. Yes, I went to Catholic school with “other” Catholic kids–some Italian, and mostly Irish. But outside of school our family did Polish school and scouting on Saturdays, and Polish folk dancing on Wednesdays, and weekend gatherings at home of fellow Polish-Americans scattered all over the suburbs. While the kids got into all kinds of trouble without adult supervision, the adults talked, and laughed, and cried, and drank. Oftentimes the drink included homemade wines from cherry, plum, you name it. I remember adults politely accepting the smallest glass possible while grimacing.

Homemade plum wine did not look very tasty.

So when I heard that making homemade plum wine is A Thing in Japan, my first thought was not exactly, I need me some of that. I lived my first two and half years in Japan while observing jars of murky wine in other people’s kitchens, and I was totally fine with not trying it.

Then last winter Mark and I gathered at our friends’ home for dinner. Our hostess Mani–who is amazing, and funny, and an incredible cook–offered us umeshu, her homemade plum wine. In any other case I would take a polite sip. But with Mani offering, I eagerly took a glass.

Umeshu is delicious.

I made a mental note to find out the recipe the next time ume season rolled around in early summer, then promptly forgot. But. But! Mani put her very easy recipe on Facebook, and I dove in. So here it is!

Basically, you go to any grocery store in June and look for this display:

A typical umeshu display in any Japanese grocery store in June

You’ll find an assortment of glass jars, a 1 kg bag of green ume plums, a 1.8L container of shochu white liquor (35% alcohol), and a 1kg bag of rock crystal sugar. The basic recipe is–wait for it–put everything in a jar and check in 3-6 months.

So I changed it up a little, of course. Per Mani’s suggestion I sterilized the jars. When I can fruit or jams in pint (about 500ml) or quart (about 1L) jars, sterilizing is easy–I just boil them in water, submerged. This giant, 5L jar didn’t even fit in my oven, so I washed the jars in hot, soapy water and steamed them over a pot of boiling water for several minutes.

Sterilizing away!

Then I decided to cut the sugar a bit. Online recipes called for either equal amount of sugar and ume by weight, or half as much sugar as ume. I split the middle and did 1 kg ume, 750 grams sugar. I loaded the ume and sugar in layers, then poured my 1.8L of shochu clear liquor over the top. And that’s pretty much it.

Ingredients assembled? Check!
Layering my ume and sugar, with a bonus star anise peeking through

Because I’m an overachiever I decided to make one batch plain and a second batch flavored. Thinking of pears poached in red wine with cinnamon and star anise, I decided that star anise would taste lovely with plums. I had no idea of how much star anise to add, so I went with 4-5 stars’ worth.

Going fancy with star anise

My umeshu is brewing away in the closet under the stairs–the closest I can find to cool and dark in a house with no insulation, never mind a basement.

Star anise umeshu on the left; plain on the right

I’ll check it in three months’ time, then again in six months. Stay tuned!

One thought on “Let’s Make Booze: My First Attempt at Umeshu, Japanese Plum Wine

  1. Donald Kane

    Marta, I’ll mark my calendar at 3 and 6 months to get an update.   I wonder if folks buy the ingredients and then say “well, I will down scale the entire ingredient list and use a bit of the 35% alcohol for my “umeshu making project cocktail. Bottoms up.” Don


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