Ultimate Guide to Umeshu (Japanese Plum Wine)
By the Japan Switch Team | May 23rd, 2022
Japan has a long and rich cultural history at its back, chock-full of interesting temples, delicacies, and of course, beverages. While many foreigners recognize sake (酒) as the country’s “traditional” beverage of choice, relatively few are familiar with the delicate powers of umeshu (梅酒).
And yet, as you plan your trip to Japan, it would be unforgivable if you didn’t at least sample this refined, traditional beverage. In the lines below, you will find everything you need to know about the umeshu tradition, including its rich history, what are the best brands that sell it, and how you can brew your very own Japanese plum wine at home.
This article is a part of our extensive series on Japanese Culture and Online Japanese Lessons at Japan Switch.
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What is Umeshu?
First things first, exactly what is umeshu, and what does it contain? Well, if sake would logically be translated to “rice wine”, then umeshu would take the title of “plum wine”, also sometimes referred to as “sweet plum wine”.
Although much revered, Japanese plum wine is a relatively simple beverage, made from ume plums, sugar, and grain alcohol. The reason why it works so well is that this beverage blends together the sour and sweet tastes of the plums and the sugar, making for an interesting journey for your tastebuds. The taste is so remarkable that, although part of a few notable cocktail recipes, this beverage is typically best enjoyed on its own (or with some minor alterations, which we’ll cover below).
Most commercial versions of umeshu have an alcohol level ranging between 10% and 15% (so it’s pretty much on par with most commercial wines out there). However, in some notable cases, the alcohol level of umeshu can go all the way up to 35%, as is the case of the famous plum wine brewed by Choya (see below). In these cases, Japanese plum wine is pretty much as strong as some base liquors (aka spirits), like whiskey, or some types of cognac.
Plot Twist: It’s not really wine, though!
An interesting aspect about umeshu is that, although its name is traditionally translated to “plum wine”, the drink itself is not wine, per se. In order to understand this, we must first take a quick lesson in beverage brewing.
What differentiates wine from other types of alcohol beverages (like base liquors, liquers, and beer) is that wine needs to be fermented, in order to achieve that taste we all know and love.
In making umeshu, however, the plums are not fermented per se, but rather mixed with sugar and alcohol, and left to sit for at least half a year (or in some cases, a full 12 months) before being enjoyed.
The term “plum wine” came about when the tipple began being marketed internationally, and it made it easier to distinguish between umeshu (literally, ume alcohol) and other nihonshu (Japanese liquor, including sake).
Fact: The suffix “-shu” is used in Japanese to denote an alcoholic drink.
History of Umeshu
Now that we have a better understanding of what umeshu is, exactly, let’s take a dive into the tipple’s fascinating history.
Ume plums first arrived in Japan from neighboring China, over 1,000 years ago, and rapidly grew in popularity. These green sour plums (also sometimes referred to as Japanese apricots) typically bloomed in late winter or early spring, and have been much admired for their beautiful pink blossoms.
Although the blossoms’ popularity eventually came to be surpassed by that of the more fetching cherry blossoms, the ume blossoms are still much loved in Japan today. During the traditional blooming months of February and March, there are still festivals held in public parks, temples, and shrines, to celebrate the delicate plum blossoms.
Fact: Although the ume flower blooms during the early-mid spring, the ume plums necessary for making umeshu only ripen during the early summer.
Originally, Japanese plum wine was consumed as medicine, the alcohol being used to soothe sore throats. Because of the country’s strict alcohol laws, drinking umeshu (or other alcoholic beverages, for that matter) without good reason was frowned upon.
This all changed during the Showa period (1926-1989), during the reign of the beloved Emperor Hiroto, as alcohol laws were relaxed. Thanks to its sweet aroma and the relatively low alcohol content, umeshu rapidly became a big DIY favorite that locals began brewing and enjoying right at home.
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How to make Umeshu
While you can, of course, purchase professionally brewed umeshu in most stores across Japan, you may also be tempted to brew your own at home. Since Japanese plum wine contains fairly few ingredients, and is relatively easy to make, it rapidly became a favorite for at-home brewers in Japan.
The traditional recipe only involves ume plums, sugar, and liquor (and, of course, a sealable glass jar to store it in). Typically, umeshu is usually brewed at home in June, when ume plums are readily available in most Japanese supermarkets.
If you enjoy learning about how to make Japanese alcoholic beverages, check out the Ultimate Guide to Sake Brewery!
Fact: Although ume plums can be used to create some delicious beverages, or edibles (like umeboshi, a traditional, salty recipe that involves pickling the plums), they are not to be consumed by themselves. The taste is incredibly sour and generally unpleasant.
So, how can you make Japanese plum wine at home?
You will need:
- 1 kg of green ume plums (or slightly ripe);
- 1 kg of korizato sugar (or any type of sugar that melts in alcohol);
- 1.5-2 liters of alcohol (you can use neutral tipples, like vodka, or ones especially designed for making umeshu, like “white liquor”).
First, you will want to prepare the plums by removing the stems, washing and thoroughly drying each fruit. Make sure you discard any softened or spoiled fruits, or else the entire batch will spoil.
Using a toothpick, skewer, or fork, poke small holes into the plums, to allow the fruit’s aroma to seep into the alcohol.
Next, layer the glass jar with alternating layers of plums, and sugars. When the jar is full, pour the alcohol over the plums and sugars, until they are completely covered. Leave to mature in a dark, dry place (away from the sun), stirring the mixture every three weeks or so during the maturation process.
While you can sample the umeshu after as little as 3-4 months, it’s recommended to wait for at least six before drinking, to enjoy a truly potent, and matured beverage. While there are ways to alter the beverage, this basic plum wine recipe just goes to show how easy this traditional Japanese beverage is, and why it’s so popular, still.
5 Ways to Drink Umeshu
Now that we’ve got our very own umeshu batch - just kidding, feel free to purchase your own at any Japanese store, if brewing isn’t really your thing - it’s time to learn a few ways to enjoy this delicate, sweet plum tipple.
These are the various mixtures and combinations you can drink umeshu in. however, they are not the different types of plum wine available on the Japanese market - we will be covering those in the next section.
Umeshu on the rocks.
Is there any alcoholic beverage that doesn’t taste just a little bit better, on the rocks? Umeshu on the rocks (umeshu rokku, 梅酒ロック) is one of the classier, and yet simplest ways in which you can enjoy the traditional Japanese brew. Simply fill (or order!) a glass with ice, and then slowly pour a finely brewed umeshu over it, until it covers the ice.
While the melting ice will dilute the beverage slightly, it will also add a light frost that heightens the sweet-sour combo that plum wine is known for.
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Umeshu with water.
Umeshu with water (umeshu mizu wari, 梅酒水割り) should be anyone’s go-to drink when looking to stave off the intense summer heat. Ideally, one ought to use ice-cold water in preparing this beverage, and while that might water down the liquor itself slightly, it provides some much-needed respite in the scorching summer heat.
For many, a straight shot of plum wine is too strong for a dizzyingly hot day, which is how umeshu with water came to be. Umeshu mizu wari is a lighter alcoholic beverage, perfect for savoring and for cooling off!
Umeshu Soda (umeshu so-da wari, 梅酒ソーダ割り) is pretty much what it sounds like - simple plum wine mixed with carbonated water. The great thing about this drink is that it works with any type of umeshu, even if it’s off-brand. In fact, the mixture can actually heighten and improve the taste of an otherwise unimpressive plum wine.
Umeshu soda comes across as a very sweet beer-like beverage that’s perfect for those who don’t typically like the bitter taste of traditional beer. Like the other two, this alcoholic drink is a great tipple to enjoy during the hot, summer weather, and a very budget-friendly alternative to other, pricier types of Japanese wine.
Frozen umeshu is a great, delicious treat, in which the alcoholic beverage is actually frozen into tiny cubes. It delivers the spicy cool of a glass of umeshu on the rocks, but without the water element, diluting the beverage. You can savor frozen plum wine by letting it melt in your mouth, or by combining it with other beverages or treats (such as ice cream).
Last but certainly not least, one of the best, and definitely the purest way to enjoy umeshu is straight. Like many other liquors, plum wine works best refrigerated, so as to deliver a light chill.
Straight umeshu has the supreme benefit of not having its flavor or alcoholic content diluted by water, or other additional flavors.
Different Types of Umeshu
Above, we talked about the different combinations one can enjoy traditional umeshu in. Now, let’s talk a bit about the different types currently on the market, and how they differ from the traditional beverage.
Basically, when you’re buying genshu umeshu, you’re getting a bottle of straight, undiluted plum wine. In order to maintain a particular set taste and alcoholic content across all their products, commercial brewers will usually dilute and distill their batches of the drink to create a sort of regularity.
With genshu umeshu, none of that happens, and what you are getting is basically natural, straight-up umeshu as it came out of the brewing process. Ideally, undiluted plum wine is best served on ice, or slightly diluted, as it’s considerably stronger.
Nigori umeshu is a term that describes an unfiltered, pulpy alcoholic beverage. The term nigori (濁り酒) basically translates to “cloudy”, meaning the plum pulp hasn’t been removed. Instead, after months of soaking in the sugary alcohol, it’s full of flavor, and highly potent.
Just like you would typically look for a more matured whiskey or cognac, for a more refined flavor, so you would seek out koshu umeshu. Koshu (甲州) basically means that unlike regular plum wine, this particular liquor has been left to mature for more than the necessary 6-months/1 year period, inside an oak flask (for an added, woody flavor).
Last but not least, we’ve got kokuto umeshu, which just means that during the brewing process, the brewer used brown sugar, instead of white. Thanks to this alteration, kokuto (黒こく糖とう) umeshu is certainly a lot sweeter than the regular type, and also gives off a stronger, more harmonious fragrance.
At the end of the day, your choice of umeshu will depend on the type of drinker you are. For instance, if you like harder alcohols, then genshu is probably the best choice for you, while if you suffer from an inescapable sweet tooth, you’d be better off buying a bottle of kokuto umeshu.
3 Benefits of Drinking Japanese Plum Wine
Of course, you can just pour yourself a nice glass of umeshu (in whichever combination you like) at the end of a long day, to just enjoy the nice, sweet-sour flavor. But did you know that the occasional glass also carries some interesting benefits for your health?
Source of Nutrients
First of all, umeshu is known in Japan as a great source of various necessary nutrients, such as iron, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and several others which work to support bone and heart health. Not only that, but all these nutrients are full of antioxidants that fight to reverse the damaging effect of free radicals in your body.
No, by that we don’t mean you should mix it with tonic water (though that works as well). But rather, in the old days, a glass of plum wine was seen as an excellent tonic, known to stave off common symptoms like nausea, headache, or constipation, thanks to its alkalinizing effect (meaning it reduces acidity in the body, and returns it to a neutral level).
Sore Throat Wonder
Of course, let’s not forget the beverage’s original purpose - soothing sore, inflamed throats. A shot of umeshu works as a great revitalizer and bacteria-killer when you’ve got a cold, or a persistent cough.
Best Places to Enjoy Plum Wine in Tokyo
So we’ve talked about the different ways in which you can drink umeshu, as well as described an easy recipe for brewing your own right at home. But now, let’s take a look at some of the best places in Japan where you can order and enjoy a fine glass of plum wine.
While this selection is focused on the Tokyo region of Japan, there are umeshu bars scattered all over the country. If you’re looking to sample tasteful, high class variations of the traditional plum wine, we recommend looking for a dedicated bar, wherever you are. Here, you will find a larger, and more complex selection of plum wine drinks and cocktails, perfect for learning more about this unique, sweet-sour beverage.
If you are eager to have a taste, yet are outside of Japan right now, we recommend checking the various Japanese restaurants in your area. Alongside traditional dishes, many of these will also serve traditional beverages, including sake, and of course, our favorite sweet plum wine, umeshu.
Combine your taste in Japanese culinary culture with language practice with our Ultimate Guide to Ordering Food in Japanese.
Tokyo Umeshu Bar Material - Shibuya
This cozy little bar in the Shibuya area in Tokyo is a must for any umeshu lover, with its impressive collection of over 1,000 different kinds of plum wine. Here, you can enjoy various sortiments of sweet, matured, or strong plum wine in all its natural deliciousness. Not only that, but for the more adventurous types, you can try some signature umeshu cocktails, mixing the traditional plum wine with sake, brandy, shocku, and even with green tea.
Umeshu Dining Myojo - Iidabashi
Located in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo, Umeshu Dining Myojo is a bar and restaurant that offers over 100 types of plum wine on its menu, alongside some great, healthy dishes. You can ask for recommendations, make your own choice, and even sample an “umeshu buffet”, which basically involves multiple types of plum wine, so you can taste and compare the different flavors.
Umeshu Bar Aplicie - Yokohama
Here’s another umeshu-focused bar, this time located just outside of Tokyo, in the Kanagawa prefecture. While the bar itself is a little far away, the trip is well worth it for the connoisseur.
Since this bar specializes in high-end plum wine brews and vendors over 100 different types of the plum wine, you can always enjoy a classy favorite, or discover a new variation of your favorite beverage.
The Best Umeshu Brands (to buy in stores!)
Finally, let’s finish it up by talking about some of the nation’s favorite brands of umeshu. These are commercial beverages you can find in most stores, straight from the hands of Japan’s most honed and infamous brewers.
You can find good brands in your local supermarket or specialized supermarkets too! Check out all the things you can buy in the Ultimate Guide to Shopping in a Japanese Supermarket.
Some of the brands below are, in fact, so famous that they can even be found in international bars.
While the brands below are generally a safe choice when you’re just discovering umeshu, we do recommend asking for the bartender’s recommendations when visiting a specialty bar.
Choya is perhaps one of the most well-loved umeshu brewers in Japan. Not only that, but it is officially recognized as the largest brewer in the entire world.
This alcohol brewing giant actually specializes in plum wine, unlike many other vendors on the market. As such, they offer a very varied and enticing selection of different umeshu combinations, such as classic fruity, 3-year-old mature brew, and various sparkling assortments.
Choya products come in all shapes and sizes - from the tiny can to the large bottle, allowing you to savor plum wine in any desired combination.
Another big-name Japanese alcohol brewer, Kubota Shuzo is also sold internationally, mostly in specialty liquor stores and fine bars. Kubota Shuzo is actually a sake producer, at its origin, and one of the largest in the country. However, it’s not uncommon for sake brewers to also dabble in the occasional glass of plum wine, and Kubota Shuzo has managed to do this wonderfully.
Their sake-focused background allows them to create a fascinating sake-based umeshu concoction that’s refreshing, and unique at the same time. Although Kubota Shuzo offers fewer plum wine variations than Choya, it’s still well worth a taste, to discover this innovative sake and plum wine blend.
You may have heard of Eikun, as the infamous brewer has been making impressive advancements into the international brew market, particularly in recent years. In its turn, Eikun isn’t an umeshu-focused brewer, either, but as with Kubota Shuzo, this allows them to experiment, and be more versatile in their selection of brews.
Generally, Eikun's selection is also sake-based, and has a strong, aromatic rice taste that blends with the sweet plum accents, and delivers a unique sweet yet woody flavor.
Also from Eikun, you can find some interesting alternatives. For instance, Eikun is a great brewer of yuzushu, which is basically a variation of umeshu, which uses yuzu (a traditional Japanese citrus fruit) instead of the usual ume plums. Yuzushu can be a great choice for drinkers without a substantial sweet tooth, who may find the sweet plum wine too much for their tastes.
Enjoy Your Japanese Plum Wine!
As we’ve seen in this article, both in Japan as well as abroad, there is a great market for umeshu brews, be they classic, fruity, or cocktail mixes. All in all, there’s a version of this popular Japanese sweet plum wine to suit even the pickiest drinkers.
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