It’s easy to misunderstand plum wine. For starters, the sweet-and-sour Japanese beverage is not a wine at all—it’s booze infused with plums, rather than fruit fermented into alcohol.
“Plum wine, or umeshu, is a liqueur made by steeping ume, or the Japanese plum, in some sort of liquor,” says Justin Park, co-owner/head bartender of Bar Leather Apron in Honolulu.
Shochu is a common base spirit, but distillers also use brandy or saké to soak ume.
That fruit might be misleading, too. Green- or yellow-skinned ume taste considerably more tart than their purple-hued cousins. Part of the apricot family, they’re believed to have originated in China, but Anglophones tend to use the terms “ume” and “Japanese plum” interchangeably.
Some drinkers aren’t entirely sure what to expect from plum wine. They wonder if it will be dark purple. Others harbor the misconception that all iterations are overly sweet.
Both are untrue. Most plum wines are peach or gold in color and, as with any beverage, there’s diversity.
“There are a variety of high-grade umeshu,” says Kenta Goto, owner of Bar Goto in New York City. “They remind me of Sauternes or Pedro Ximénez Sherry.”
Park compares umeshu to vermouth or fortified wines.
Goto suggests serving umeshu on the rocks or mixed with club soda, but it can also be incorporated into cocktails.
“At Bar Goto, we often replace vermouth with umeshu and make [a] Rob Roy or spritz,” he says.
Park often swaps it in for “something like a vermouth or Sherry” in mixed drinks. And, as much as he’d like to use fresh fruit in his drinks, “the Japanese plum is not always available,” says Park. “So plum wine, or umeshu, is a great substitute. It gives a cocktail more body and an added touch of sweetness and sour.”
Quality bottles include Toko Ginjo Umeshu and Nakata Umeshu Taru, which features top-grade plums and is aged in used oak. The most readily available brand in the U.S. is Choya, and its bottles tend to be on the sweeter end of the spectrum.
It’s fairly easy to make plum wine at home. Just add ume and sugar to your base spirit, cover and store the mixture in a cool, dark place for a minimum of three months.