Kyoto Sake: Learning to Make Umeshu in Fushimi – part 1

Kyoto Sake: Learning to Make Umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur) in Fushimi – part 1

Kyoto Sake: Learning to Make Umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur) in Fushimi

Umeshu: Japanese plums, called ume (梅) are mainly used to flavor alcohol and vinegar and to make the incredible umeboshi, pickled plum. In early summer, it is popular to make ume flavored alcohol, called umeshu (梅酒) at home, but we were fortunate enough to get to learn from the pros this year.

Our friends and KyotoFoodie fans at Kitagawa Honke Sake Brewery showed Peko how they make their one-of-a-kind, Hannari (はんなり) brand ‘Kyoto style’ umeshu.

Umeshu (梅酒)
To make umeshu, the ume fruit are steeped in shochu (焼酎) for 6-9 months. The shochu is quite strong, 35% alcohol, but the finished umeshu is usually less than 15%. The shochu draws out the ume extract, ume extract combined with the sugar halves the alcohol content. If steeped longer than 6-9 months, the shochu will start to leach out the bitterness of the ume pits. After removing the fruit, umeshu can then be consumed or aged.

Umeshu is not fermented, therefore it is NOT ‘plum wine’. It is a liqueur.

The steeped ume fruit can be eaten and are sweet and tasty, yet quite intoxicating. It is common at New Year’s and other family gathering occasions in Japan to see some children red-faced and buzzing thanks to Grandpa fishing a few ume out of the jar for them to eat.

Now there are many kinds of umeshu available, many combining novel ingredients but it is always sweet and plum fruity. In the winter umeshu is excellent served with hot water and in the summer on ice or with soda water.

Umeshu is often made of the green ume fruit, however Kitagawa Honke uses fruit that are slightly more ripe, being more yellow in color. This creates a mellower and more full-bodied, complex flavor. (More about Hannari brand umeshu in part 2, and the recipe in an upcoming homecooking article.)

Umeshu Production Process
The process for making umeshu is quite simple.

1. De-stem the ume fruit.
2. Check quality, remove any overly ripe or rotten fruit.
3. Wash
4. Place in container with sugar and alcohol (35% by volume).
5. Seal container and place in a cool, dark place for aging.

Ume Season
The ume is in the plum family, but it is actually more closely related to apricot than what Westerns would usually think of as a plum. In the Kyoto region ume blossom in later winter, usually February. If you are lucky, you can see ume blossoms in the snow! The fruit is mature by early summer and often used when green and unripe.

Wakayama Prefecture, to the south-east of Kyoto produces the best ume in Japan. Vitually any high quality ume product in Japan uses ume from Wakayama, or Kishu (紀州) as it was once called. Kitagawa Honke selects ume from Kinan (紀南), which is the southern most part of Wakayama. The warm, mild climate makes for excellent ume.

Sake is made during the cold months so the brewery is not so busy in the summer, however in mid-June, when the ume are in season there is a 10 day flurry of activity when umeshu is made. Early every morning several tons of ume arrive and the fruit are sorted and de-stemmed. In addition to the kurabito (brewery workers) crew, the warehouse crew and the employees that work in the office walk down the street to the brewery and help out. All of this work in finished in the morning. After lunch, the kurabito crew wash the ume and place them in tanks with shochu and sugar.

Shochu
In Japan there are numerous kinds of shochu. The most common shochu are distilled from sweet potato, barley or rice. Many other ingredients are used now; soba, black sugar (kokuto 黒糖), sesame — even milk!

Kitagawa Honke makes the shochu that is used in their umeshu, and as they are a sake brewery, they make it from rice. Rice shochu is fairly close to vodka in taste.

As I approached the brewery this morning, the fragrance of ume fruit was heavy in the neighborhood!

Making Umeshu at Kitagawa Honke Sake Brewery

Crates of Nicely Ripened Ume
Kyoto Sake: Learning to Make Umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur) in Fushimi

All Hands on Deck
Kyoto Sake: Learning to Make Umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur) in Fushimi

70 Crates of Ume
Kyoto Sake: Learning to Make Umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur) in Fushimi
Seventy crates of ume today to sort and de-stem.

De-stemming and Sorting Ume
Kyoto Sake: Learning to Make Umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur) in Fushimi
Everyone in the company joins in, even the ‘suits’!

De-stemming and Sorting Ume
Kyoto Sake: Learning to Make Umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur) in Fushimi

De-stemming Ume – Before and After
Kyoto Sake: Learning to Make Umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur) in Fushimi
The stems are plucked out with a simple needle-like metal instrument.

De-stemming and Sorting Ume
Kyoto Sake: Learning to Make Umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur) in Fushimi
The ume on the left are ‘B’ quality, they have some bruises and blemishes, the ume on the right are ‘A’ quality. When the umeshu is finished, the ‘A’ quality ume will be added to bottles or bagged and sold separately for eating. ‘B’ quality ume taste just fine. (see part 2)

Weighing Ume
Kyoto Sake: Learning to Make Umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur) in Fushimi
The de-stemmed and sorted ume are carefully weighed in preparation to adding to the tanks.

Hues of Ume
Kyoto Sake: Learning to Make Umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur) in Fushimi
From green to yellow, orange and even red, this variety of color produces a more complex flavored umeshu than the usual unripened green fruit. More precision and labor is required, but the quality of the end result is obvious.

Final Check
Kyoto Sake: Learning to Make Umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur) in Fushimi
Two tanks, differing in size will be filled today. Brewmaster Tashima (left) oversees the final check of the recipe and crate count for each tank. The shochu and sugar has already been added.

Washing Ume
Kyoto Sake: Learning to Make Umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur) in Fushimi
The ume absorb water which will affect the taste of the umeshu, so they have to be washed quickly, and of course, thoroughly. Kitagawa Honke uses rather ripe ume fruit, so they are easily bruised by the mechanical brushes in the washing machine. The ume are washed for just 35 seconds.

Washing Ume
Kyoto Sake: Learning to Make Umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur) in Fushimi
As the ume spin on the cylindrical brushes, one of the crew hoses them with Fushimi water.

Washing Ume
Kyoto Sake: Learning to Make Umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur) in Fushimi
After washing, the ume are returned to clean crates then allowed to drain but not quite dry for about 20 minutes. Excess water can cause the umeshu to spoil later.

Steeping Ume
Kyoto Sake: Learning to Make Umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur) in Fushimi
The ume are lifted with the forklift then unceremoniously dumped into the tank.

Steeping Ume
Kyoto Sake: Learning to Make Umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur) in Fushimi

Steeping Ume
Kyoto Sake: Learning to Make Umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur) in Fushimi
I love this shot! And, I got splashed taking it!

Steeping Ume
Kyoto Sake: Learning to Make Umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur) in Fushimi
The ume are all submerged in shochu and then the tank is covered. See you in the springtime, ume.

The Series
Learning to Make Umeshu: Part 1
Learning to Make Umeshu: Part 2

17 Responses to “Kyoto Sake: Learning to Make Umeshu in Fushimi – part 1”

  1. diva says:

    wow. thanks for such a detailed post yet again! umeshu on some shaved ice sounds pretty damn good to me right now.

  2. kat says:

    I was debating whether to try making umeshu this year. After seeing this post, I think I may have to :)

  3. Peko Peko says:

    diva, on shaved ice? yeah, that sounds great!

  4. Peko Peko says:

    kat, ya gotta make umeshu! we are making 3 or 4 kinds this year, plus we are going to try ume vinegar.

  5. Becky says:

    i love that you’ve got photos of the entire process. i really want to try umeshu now, even though i’m technically not old enough to drink yet (by US standards) =X

  6. Nate says:

    Wow, thanks for such an informative post. I love plum liquer over ice in the summertime.

  7. Michelle says:

    Great post and very detailed! I love umeshu but there is no way I’d find those plums here. Just out of curiosity, do you know what the botanical name (scientific) for the kind of plums that are used for ume in Japan is?

  8. I love umeshu…great photos, especially the splash shot.

  9. Yum! Would love to try some. Sounds delicious – thanks for the detailed post!

  10. Peko Peko says:

    Hello Becky, I like your blog! Thanks for coming to KyotoFoodie! Maybe after you are of age in the US, you can do an Umeshu Mademoiselle blog? Maybe you are old enough to drink in Japan?

    Hello Nate, Wow, that is QUITE a cigar on your blog? That is a cigar, right? Yes, umeshu on ice is pretty tough to beat in the summer!

    Hello Michelle, Where is ‘here’? I have bought them on the West Coast of the US, I think Seattle, or perhaps it was Vancouver. Umeshu, if you can get the ume, is actually very, very easy to make. It looks like the botanical name is Prunus mume. One of the things we are willing to do is help producers and distributors in your region get what they need so that you can buy the ingredients you need for authentic Japanese cuisine. Check out Source Delish!

    Hello There AppetiteforChina, Thank you for liking my photo! I am actually quite proud of that one!

  11. Michelle says:

    Sorry Peko Peko, “here” is Adelaide, Australia where I KNOW we can’t get it but thanks so much for the info on the botanical name and etc. We just don’t have a very big Japanese population here to actually get a lot of good Japanese products – it’s not like Sydney or Melbourne. I hope I got my hands on them one day.

  12. Peko Peko says:

    Hi Michelle, Did you try ordering online? One thing, I think that you don’t need any Japanese in town to have ume. In Japan, ‘American’ cherries, French pears, etc, are grown for native consumption. Adopt, evolve, enjoy! Talk to some retailers, distributors, growers, etc in your region. Tell them to start stocking/growing more stuff. There are lots of great fruit and veggies from Japan that I am sure Australian shoppers want buy. And not for the preparation of Japanese cuisine, but your own home cookin’. The producers just might have to be told!
    We are available to provide some help if need be. http://www.kyotofoodie.com/source-delish

  13. al says:

    hi i was wondering if you can help me out with a recipe/s for making umeboshi plums/paste. mainly the quantities of salt and water per kg of plums and any subtitutes for beef steak plant leaves. i would love to try and make my own thanks

  14. Natasha says:

    I have always been fascinated by Kyoto. Now, this blog keeps me posted.

  15. g says:

    i have a 20something year old umeshu that my mother in law made… its stored in a sake bottle without the ume in it.
    how long can you store umeshu? should i throw it out? or live dangeroulsy and take a sip?

  16. Saitoko says:

    Actually, I’d love to know what your recommendation would be for making umeboshi, as well! I love the honey umeboshi you can get in the grocery store (we live in Osaka), but it would be even better to be able to make it ourselves! ^_^

    Your post here is excellent, and I want to try making umeshu this year, but I’d love to add a little something extra…Would that be possible? I mean like other types of fruit along with the ume. Would citrus work, or would it spoil the chemistry? I love your posts!

  17. […] love aomikan! Last year I tried to make aomikanshu liqueur (like umeshu, yuzushu, karinshu), but it didn’t turn out very well. I think that I didn’t add enough […]

Leave a Reply

ContactCopyright © Kyoto Foodie: Where and what to eat in Kyoto, All Rights Reserved.