Making Japanese Plum Wine

Perfect use for excess plums


My mother’s visiting from San Francisco this week, and we celebrated Mother’s Day and the abundance of spring by bottling up six quarts of Japanese plum wine. When I posted a photo of the finished product online, several people asked for the recipe. So here it is, for all to enjoy.

Japanese plum wine (umeshu in Japanese) isn’t really wine. It’s sweetened plum-flavored liqueur. If you have an over-productive plum tree (as we do), this is a great way to thin the tree and make something useful from the thinnings. And if you endure hot summers (as we do), there’s nothing better than ice-cold plum wine to greet a warm evening.

INGREDIENTS (makes 2 qts)

  • 30-40 unblemished green (unripe) plums
  • 1 kilogram rock crystal sugar (kōrizato in Japanese; you may only need 2/3 kg, but it usually comes in one-kilo bags)
  • one 750-ml bottle of neutral spirits (preferably Japanese shōchū, but any neutral spirit will work, like vodka)

Sort through your plums and discard any that are blemished or broken. Pull off stems and leaves. Wash under running water, then let dry. I usually lay them out on a drying rack or a cloth-covered tray, then set in a warm, shady place to dry.

Meanwhile, gather and wash the jars you’re going to use. I’ve used pint jars, quart-sized jars, and half-gallon Mason jars, but find the quart-sized ones work best. They just fit more easily in the fridge once opened. This time round, since I was using so many jars and most of them had been previously used and were a bit dusty, I ran them through the dishwasher. But I don’t generally bother sterilizing them, given the high alcohol content. (For lids I just use plastic lids or a used, clean set of bands and seals.)

Bring the dry fruit inside, then start assembling your jars of plum wine. This part’s fun and easy. You just alternate layers of plums and sugar. I start with a layer of plums (four to six, depending on their size & the size of the jar), cover with a layer of sugar, then plums, then sugar, up to the top of the jar. Then pour the spirits over till you’ve covered everything. If you have a plum sticking out over the liquid at the top, take it out. Everything should be covered. (For a quart-sized jar, I need 16-18 plums & about 1/3 kg of sugar.)

Now seal up your jars and label them. I always write the year and what kind of liqueur I’ve used. It’s definitely worth experimenting. Experiments that have worked for us: Vodka. Korean soju (usually cheaper than shōchū but pre-sweetened with corn syrup, so not my first choice). Experiments that did NOT work: Gin (yuck). Turbinado sugar instead of rock crystal sugar (gross). I’ve never tried it with other varieties of fruit, like pluots, but it’d be worth a try.

Store your jars in a cool, dry place like a wine cellar, if you’re lucky enough to have one. We store all our jarred stuff in the bottom of a linen closet. When the Apocalypse comes, we’ll be drinking plum wine and eating homemade jam till the end of the world.

Apparently you can start drinking umeshu within three to six months, but I’ve always waited till the following summer, when the rising temperatures remind me of the pleasures of chilled plum wine. The sugar will dissolve, the plums will darken, and the liqueur take on an amber color.

kampai!This stuff keeps for a long time in storage. It’s 2013, and we’re just now finishing our 2009 batch. Once we open a jar, we do keep it in the fridge. It keeps for a long time there too.

Umeshu is strong stuff (most shōchū are 24% alcohol), so a little goes a long way. I like it best splashed over ice and diluted with some water. Kampai!

(Note: All photos from 2009. My letting-it-go-gray hair does not look like this today!)

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