Home > Kyoto This Month >> Girljin in Japan
Girljin in Japan
By Rachel Tranter Davies
Ume-shu Season is Here!
Liquor born from sweet fragrance and pretty little blossoms Japanese plum - ume - is a delicious and incredibly popular fruit that is used in everything from cooking, preserving and (my personal favorite), as a wonderfully sweet and sour alcoholic beverage called ume-shu.
February in Japan sees the wonderful blooming of Japanese ume trees, signaling springtime, which are celebrated with festivals known as Ume Matsuri in public parks, shrines and temples across the country. You'll recognize the stunning ume trees by their strong, sweet fragrance and pretty little blossoms that range from bright white to deep fuschia and almost every shade of pink in between. The actual ume fruit is more sour than its western counterparts and so it's usually processed before being consumed. If you haven't already, try umeboshi - pickled plum that is deliciously tangy and usually cooked with rice.
There are a number of ways to enjoy ume but for me, the stand out product to come from these tasty little fruits has to be umeshu, a drink with unique characteristics and considerable charm. Ume-shu is made up of two words - ume and shu, the suffix for alcohol. Although ume-shu is sometimes referred to in English as a ''plum wine'', this isn't strictly true. Rather than fermenting the fruit, ume-shu is made by combining slightly unripened ume with sugar and either shochu or sake. Brewers slowly mature their ume-shu for up to, or even over a year in tanks, where the alcohol extracts all of the flavor characteristics from the fruit leaving a lovely rich amber nectar with a heady aroma and very unique taste. Usually coming in at around 12% alcohol, it's a great base for mixed drinks but equally pleasurable on its own.
The finished liquid is the perfect balance of sweet from the addition of sugar, and tart from the natural acids in the slightly under-ripe fruit. Japanese ume is a flavor that is very typical of Japan. It's not like our western plums and so it's not often a flavor that visitors have come across. This is what makes ume-shu special. Ume is abundant in the subtle fifth taste element, umami, which gives us a sensation of savory goodness and is what makes some of the most delicious foods on the planet so delicious. Think truffle, caviar and dashi (broth).
They each have that moreish quality that keeps people coming back for a taste, and until recently was very difficult to characterize but is often found in Japanese foods. Ume-shu is a fairly syrupy, rich liqueur due to its high sugar content. It's delicious served on the rocks or even in a cocktail, with a lot of bars incorporating it into some really interesting recipes.
There are a huge number of different ume-shu brands on the market, from tiny independent producers to those owned by bigger sake breweries, and each is as individual as the next. My advice is to just try a few until you find the style and taste that suits you! Here's a selection of my favorite for those of you who don't have time to do the legwork...
If you want to see ume in Kyoto, head to Kitano Tenman-gu Shrine , which features an entire grove of nearly 2,000 ume trees that bloom from February to March. The shrine hosts a special tea ceremony, called Baika-sai, in this plum grove every February.
If you want to try different types of ume-shu and pick up a bottle or two as souvenirs, head to Tsunoki in Nishiki Market, where you can chat to the very knowledgeable staff (most of whom speak English) and are more than happy to help choose the ume-shu that's right for you!
Uji Gyokuro Ume-shu
Made by the Kitagawa Honke Brewery in Kyoto, it incorporates real Uji gyokuro green tea leaves, giving it a slightly green color and a lovely bitterness that complements the tangy ume. 1,400 yen/720ml; www.tomio-sake.co.jp
Different to many other ume-shu on the market as it is made from fully ripened and sweeter ume. It has very little bitterness and peach-like sweet aroma. 1,300 yen/720ml; www.gekkeikan.co.jp
Rachel is a food, drink and travel writer. Originally from England, she recently relocated to Japan and is now finding her feet in Kyoto. You can find her blogging tweeting and instagramming her experiences at Girljin in Japan.