Umeshu came from China to Japan roughly 1,000 years ago, when it was first used as medicine against a sore throat. The word umeshu was first documented in a dictionary of Japanese food in 1697.
Homemade umeshu is very popular, since it's both delicious and easy to make. Recent years have seen a small umeshu boom, with many small companies launching their own brands. Famous for its green bottles with ume plums inside, Choya Umeshu is the market leader with around a 30 percent share—but there are a few hundred brands available in a broad variety in flavors.
Each type of umeshu is first classified by its base alcohol. Umeshu is predominantly made from four types of alcohol: sake, shochu or awamori (Japanese distilled spirits), brandy or white liquor.
In addition, there are forms of umeshu based on other alcohols such as whiskey, grappa (grape-based Italian brandy), spirits or rum. The flavor will also vary based on supplemental ingredients such as sweetening with white rock sugar, black sugar or honey.
Recent producers have become very creative in adding new flavors to their umeshu. We've seen umeshu with bananas, green or black tea, shiso (perilla herbs), lemon grass, mango, passionfruit, ginger and more.
While mass-produced brands are usually very sweet, the smaller makers often produce umeshu based on one of their core products, such as sake or shochu, and often use less sugar. The pleasure of exploring umeshu is to taste different brands and enjoy the different flavors.
How to Best Enjoy Umeshu
The most common way to drink umeshu is on the rocks, which is a safe way to enjoy nearly any variety. The problem with ice, though, is that it quickly dilutes the delicate flavor of the drink.
In summer it's common to drink umeshu soda, which makes for a very refreshing drink. In winter it's more and more popular to drink umeshu mixed with hot water, which really warms body and soul. Shoga (ginger) umeshu is a great choice in the cooler months.
You can also use umeshu for any cocktail that needs a fruity or acidic taste.
Sake Base: Nagare Ume Sukkiri
This is a very classic umeshu based on sake. It's not too sweet and not too sour. The first impression reminds the drinker that it's based on sake, but it then deploys a rich and intensely fruity flavor with a long aftertaste. On the rocks is a great way to enjoy Nagare Ume Sukkiri.
Producer: Chinriu Honten in cooperation with Ishii Brewery, Kanagawa Prefecture
Ingredients: Sake, ume, white rock sugar
Shochu Base: Hannari Kyo Umeshu
Hannari means luxurious in the Kyoto dialect, and Hannari Kyo Umeshu is a very traditional brand made with rice-based shochu. The ripe ume plum used for production gives it a very intense, fruity flavor with a very good balance of sweetness and acidity. The producer, Kitagawa Honke Brewery, was founded in 1657, and also produces a range of sake and shochu.
Producer: Kitagawa Honke Brewery, Kyoto
Ingredients: Rice shochu, ume, white sugar
Brandy Base: Hyakunen Umeshu
Hyakunen Umeshu is made with five-year-old brandy, which gives it a thick and round taste. It's sweetened with honey that gives it a very intense and sweet ume flavor as well. Hyakunen Umeshu can perfectly accompany a dark chocolate cake or other rich deserts. A shot of Hyakunen Umshu into a glass of champagne will transform it into a fruity and refreshing cocktail.
Producer: Meiri Brewery, Ibaraki Prefecture
Ingredients: Ume, white liquor, sugar, brandy, honey
White Liquor Base: Kyunen Koshu Nigori Umeshu
This very unique umeshu is a regular top seller, made with ripe ume pulp that is steeped in white liquor for nine years! This umeshu is very fruity and the liquid is really thick. It has a strong, very natural and fruity sweetness with low acidity. As Kyunen Koshu Nigori Umeshu has a very intense flavor it also can be enjoyed with soda or champagne, and even makes a very nice topping on vanilla ice cream.
Producer: Kikusui Brewery, Kochi Prefecture
Ingredients: Ume, white liquor, sugar
Other: Uji Gyokuro Umeshu
This is a very special umeshu variety from Kyoto. It's based on rice shochu and made using real leaves from high quality gyokuro green tea, giving it a slightly green color. The drinker first tastes the fruitiness of the ume plum, but the bitter aftertaste is typical for the Uji Gyokuro green tea.
Uji Gyokuro Umeshu is made by the Kitagawa Honke Brewery in Kyoto. This brewery is also well known for its Hannari Shochu, which is the base for this umeshu. Kitagawa Honke also produces a lineup of different kinds of umeshu, including the regular Hannari Kyo Umeshu, shiso (herb) umeshu, and yuzu (citrus) umeshu.
Producer: Kitagawa Honke Brewery, Kyoto
Ingredients: Rice Shochu, ume, sugar, Gyokuro green tea