D-I-Y umeshu

3 01 2011

Of the collective two-and-a-half years I’ve spent living in Japan, one of my regrets (I’ve had a few…) is not having a crack at making umeshu. As the mercury begins to nudge toward some rather unpleasant summer temperatures, made all the worse by the vile humidity, the supermarkets start to sell all the ingredients and gear you need to make umeshu at home – generally speaking, a bag of unripe ume , a bag of white rock sugar, a huge carton of white spirit (or sometimes brandy) specifically made for D-I-Y homemade hooch, and a jar into which you throw all the ingredients. (For a fantastically informative blog post showing how it’s done properly, check this out).

Anyway, pretty much none of this shit is available in Australia.

Well, sure, you can find huge jars, but it’s difficult to come across the specific type of double-lid jars they like to use for umeshu. And, well, yes, I suppose you can find white rock sugar, but being a neurotic pedant of sorts, I was after a Japanese brand, which appears to be unavailable here. And the Japanese-made white spirits? Forget about it.

The greatest nuisance of all is that Australia appears to be virtually devoid of commercially available ume. I asked around at Japanese grocers, I called up orchards, I searched online. Nothing. I even downloaded a 124-page report titled “Development of Prunus mume, a new tree crop for Australia” (Prunus mume is the scientific name for the tree which bears the ume fruit) written by some egghead botanists from the Australian Government’s Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. I probably should’ve got in touch with those folks to ask them if there had been any developments since the publication of the report in March 2007, although in all likelihood they would have been busy getting their jollies talking about stamens and carpels with other flora junkies.

BUT!… it turns out, after trawling through some ethnobotany forums, that an unripe apricot isn’t all that dissimilar from the particular type of ume used to make umeshu. So, what the hell, I thought I’d give it a go. I grabbed a few bags of unripe apricots from Prahran Markets, getting ripped off in the process due to it being the very start of the apricot season, then bought a 1.25L bottle of Smirnoff vodka and a 750mL bottle of mugi-shochu (a 25%abv Japanese spirit made from wheat), and an assortment of different sugars – white sugar, light muscovado sugar, and black Japanese rock sugar. I also incorporated a bottle of Bacardi white rum which had been lying around in my liquor cupboard, unwanted and unused – and deservedly so – for a number of years. I’m yet to come across an umeshu recipe that mentions rum, but I figured a little experimentation couldn’t hurt. Finally, I picked up some shitty jars at one of those shops that sell a plethora of cheap and tacky homewares.

I made three different batches:

Jar 1: Smirnoff, mugi-shochu, white sugar.

Jar 2: Smirnoff, Japanese black rock sugar.

Jar 3: Bacardi white, mugi-shochu, muscovado sugar.


Gotta love drug company freebies, especially Post-It notes. Imigran can be used to treat migraines, so I may very well need a handful of them after drinking this crap. And I know it's a poor photo - I'm sorry - but I'll post up a better one once the booze has matured a little.

The jars really are shoddy, turns out they don’t even seal properly, hence all the layers of cling-wrap.

Most umeshu recipes recommend steeping the fruits in the liquid for a period of at least six months, although apparently this period of time can be shortened when using vodka. I made them on November 16, so perhaps I’ll give them at little taste in mid-February, then declare it open season on May 16. If any of them turn out to be a success, I’ll whip up enough to kill a small army next apricot season. Regardless of the results, you’ll be hearing about them here.

One final nit-picking point I’d like to make is that the word “umeshu” is frequently, and incorrectly, translated into English as “plum wine”. Ume are not plums, nor is umeshu a wine – it’s a liqueur. Best to just call it “umeshu”, as “a liqueur made from an Asian fruit which is somewhat similar to an unripe apricot” is a little unwieldy for a label.