The Japanese ‘Wine’ Bringing Fresh Flavors to Cocktails

Umeshu plum wine in bottle
Photo by Meg Baggott

As bartenders continue looking for inspiration in Japan’s drinking culture and ingredients like saké and Japanese whisky, umeshu, a tangy-sweet spirit also known as plum wine in the U.S., has found a place in cocktails. It adds sweetness and a whisper of fruit to an array of drinks.

At New York City’s Katana Kitten, co-owner Masa Urushido uses umeshu in a Negroni riff called the Meguroni, where it stands up to the malty notes of genever.

Urushido notes that the moniker “plum wine” is a bit deceiving. Umeshu literally translates to plum (ume), and liquor (shu).

Plum Wine is Confusingly Named and Often Misunderstood

“It’s not technically wine because you’re not fermenting the ume,” he says. Instead, it’s made by macerating plums in a lower-alcohol spirit, often shochu, and then sweetened with slow-dissolving rock sugar.

Urushido sees umeshu as “between a cordial and a vermouth,” since it has similar alcohol levels (around 10–14% abv) and adds both sweetness and mild acidity. He compares the nuances of plum wine to the herbs and spices that flavor vermouth.

Bartenders often mix umeshu with other Japanese ingredients. At Chicago’s Pacific Standard Time, it’s sometimes paired with shochu, Japanese whisky and celery in the Imo Muji cocktail.

In Washington, D.C.’s Columbia Room, it has been used to round out a Martini-like sipper that features shiso-infused saké for a seasonal “Japanese-Inspired Spring Tasting Room” menu.

Meanwhile, back in Japan, Urushido says that plum wine is likely to be served more simply, over ice in a cordial glass. It’s also offered as an umeshu soda, a classic highball served in a glass mug over ice and topped up with soda water.

Meguroni Recipe

“Meguro is one of 23 districts of Tokyo, a place I used to live near,” says Urushido. He opts for a robust “cocktail umeshu” for this Negroni variation, made with an aged rum base and brown sugar. Its deeper flavor stands up to the malty genever and red bitter.

Courtesy Masa Urushido, co-owner, Katana Kitten, New York City.

In mixing glass, stir together 1 ounce Old Duff Genever, ¾ ounce Choya Kokuto Umeshu, ¾ ounce Caffo Red Bitter and ice. Strain into rocks glass over large ice cube. Garnish with lemon peel.

Published on January 9, 2020
Topics: Drinks