Japanese love their seasons, and 'tis the season for umeshu (梅酒), or plum liqueur–aka plum wine. Ume blossoms bloom just before sakura and their small, hard green fruits ripen around the last week of May and the beginning of June. This oriental variety of plum is actually somewhere between a plum and an apricot. The fruit is too astringent to eat raw, so in Japan they are eaten either pickled as umeboshi or soaked in alcohol as umeshu.
Typical glass of Umeshu. Chris 73 on Wikimedia
Although umeshu is readily available in supermarkets, it is surprisingly easy to make at home, so many people do so as a yearly tradition. In fact, you'll recognize the beginning of umeshu season when you walk into a Japanese grocery store and notice all the necessary tools and ingredients, conveniently placed on a stand near the front doors–all you need is a 4L glass jar and equal parts plum fruit, rock sugar, and shochu (Japanese white liqueur although some recipes suggest vodka as an alternative).
While there are many recipes available online, here is the one my host mom gave me.
1 kg Japanese plums
1 kg rock sugar
1 L shochu (Japanese white liqueur)
A large glass jar with a lid (and a handle, preferably)
Step 1: Wash the fruit
Step 2: Using the pick or something sharp, remove the calyx, or stem end.
Step 3: Prick the fruit all over (7 or 8 pricks); this allows the fruit juice to leak out into the liquor and for the liquor to saturate the fruit. When the liquor is ready, you can also eat the plums if you wish.
Step 4: Put a handful of plums into the jar, then add a layer of rock sugar; repeat until you've used all your ingredients–why? No other reason but tradition!
Step 5: Pour the white liquor over everything.
You're finished! Now, all you have to do is stick a piece of tape on the jar with today's date on it. You will leave the jar in a cool, dark place for at least 3 months (6 months is better, and the longer you leave it, the sweeter it gets). I tried a two-year umeshu, and it was like a fruity dessert wine but so light–like diamonds in my mouth! Therefore, I highly recommend you make more than one jar of umeshu, one 3 month jar and one 6 month jar.
Of course, like so much of traditional Japanese cuisine, umeshu is not only tasty but also good for health. You can drink it on the rocks, diluted with cold or hot water–whatever way suits your fancy. Just remember to save the plums to eat since they are sweet and smooth.After reading this, I hope you feel encouraged to try and make it at home yourself. The taste will differ depending on the climate or temperature in your country so after you finish the recipe, feel free to comment on what it tasted like.