Umeshu (Ume Liqueur) (梅酒)

"Umeshu" is a liqueur which is popular in Japan and made by steeping green ume (Japanese apricots), which are generally picked around June, in alcohol (normally in white liquor or shochu - distilled spirits).
It is also called 'Umezake,' 'Baishu,' and 'Umejochu.'


Umeshu quenches thirst in the summer, helps beat the heat and relieve fatigue, and warms the body. Thanks to the sterilizing effect of ume and alcohol, it also counteracts poison when a small amount of ume is dropped into unboiled water. Because it can be easily made at home, it has been enjoyed as a popular, healthy liquor since ancient times. And it has also been consumed as an aperitif in recent years.

Manufacturing method

Umeshu is made by keeping ume steeped in alcohol and sugar in a cold place.

The usual ratio is 1 kilogram of ume to 0.4-1 kilogram of sugar to 1.8 liters of alcohol. The stalks of ume are removed with bamboo. And bruised fruits are discarded. After being washed well, ume are carefully wiped dry and sun-dried for about an hour.
(They are occasionally turned over and completely dried.)
The bottle is filled alternately with ume and sugar. On this occasion, sugar is often placed on the top to prevent ume from floating on top. Alcohol is slowly poured into the jar. It is capped tightly and preserved in a cold dark place.

Ume used to make umeshu includes not only nanko-ume, considered the highest quality ume, but also the variety that has thick flesh and small seeds as well as high acidity, such as gojiro-ume, shirakaga-ume, oshuku-ume, bungo-ume, ryukyo-koume, rinshu-ume, gyokuei-ume, and baigo-ume. It is considered better to use green ume, rather than yellow-colored ripe ones. However, using ripe ume also gives a distinctive scent to umeshu.

Rock sugar is generally used as sugar. However, honey, brown sugar, fructose, and so on are also used. Sugar that has a relatively moderate solubility is more desirable. The reason for this is explained as follows: Some components of ume are released, having absorbed alcohol due to the osmotic pressure difference before the sugar begins to dissolve into alcohol where osmotic pressure increases after its dissolution. If sugar dissolves rapidly before ume absorbs the alcohol, the osmotic pressure of ume is balanced with that of alcohol, and the components of ume are not released. In fact, letting ume sit in alcohol without sugar produces liquor that has acquired only the scent.

As for alcohol, it is common to use white liquor (korui shochu - multiply distilled shochu) or brandy. Spirits--such as gin (spirits), vodka, rum, honkaku shochu (authentic shochu), and awamori (Okinawan shochu)--as well as brew--such as sake (rice wine) and wine--and mirin (sweet cooking rice wine) are also used sometimes. As it requires a long maturation period to bring out the flavor, when light alcohol is used, it is necessary to watch out for the growth of mold and rot. Generally, alcohol containing more than thirty-five percent alcohol by volume is considered desirable. It is also illegal to use alcohol containing less than twenty percent alcohol by volume to steep ume at home. Additionally, most commercially available umeshu in Japan has ten to fifteen percent alcohol by volume.

Most umeshu has a steeping period of about a year.

It is believed that the longer it is aged, the richer the flavor becomes. Umeshu that has been aged for more than 10 years is also commercially available. When it is aged for a long time, ume are taken out halfway through the aging process. And they are sometimes used as food.

Special legal exemption in Japan

The Liquor Tax Law, which was revised in 1962, includes a special exemption, which does not identify the mixing of any goods other than those listed below with alcohol, where the alcohol content is more than twenty percent by volume, as a 'manufacturing activity,' so long as it is for personal drinking.

Rice, wheat, foxtail millet, corn, kaoliang, millet, barnyard millet, starch, and their malts.
Grapes (including wild grapes)
Amino acids and their salts, vitamins, nucleolytic products and their salts, organic acids and their salts, mineral salts, food colors, flavors, and alcohol lees (the Liquor Tax Law Article 7, Article 43 Clause 11, Order for Enforcement of the Liquor Tax Law Article 50, Ordinance for Enforcement of the Liquor Tax Law Article 13 Clause 3).

If the above goods are mixed with alcohol, where the alcohol content is less than twenty percent by volume, fermentation may occur and alcohol may be produced during the steeping process. In short, the above is an exemption that was established on condition that alcohol will never be produced during the steeping process. Hence, steeping ume in commonly-used mirin and so on that has ten to fourteen percent alcohol by volume not only introduces the possibility of rot, but it is also illegal (Order for Enforcement of the Liquor Tax Law Article 50 Clause 10.1).

On June 14, 2007, a TV show, "Kyo no ryori" (Today's Cooking), broadcast by Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK), aired a recipe for umeshu in its special episode, 'Tsukemono (Japanese Pickles) and Preserved Foods Handed Down in My Family--Umeshu.'
However, it turned out to be illegal for an individual to make umeshu following their recipe. And later NHK had to broadcast an apology.

It was a violation of the Liquor Tax Law to make umeshu at home before the revision in 1962. However, in reality umeshu was commonly produced in private households. And the revision of the Liquor Tax Law implied an alteration of the law that did not match reality.

Afterward, Special Measures concerning Taxation in the Liquor Tax Law was enacted and enforced on April 30, 2008. And it became possible for bars, restaurants, and so on to offer homemade umeshu and other homemade alcoholic beverages on their business premises, without acquiring a license to produce them, when certain requirements are met, by making an application.

To apply, it is necessary to download a prescribed form of return, "Declaration on the Application of Special Provisions concerning the Beginning, Suspension, and Conclusion of Mixture," from the website of the National Tax Agency (Application and Notification Forms=>Liquor Tax Related Forms=>38. Declaration on the Application of Special Provisions concerning the Beginning, Suspension, and Conclusion of Mixture) and to mail or take it to the local tax office.

The following are the exclusion and conditions for the application of the provisions concerning production. 1 The provisions of the Liquor Tax Law concerning deemed production are not applied to cases where bars and restaurants mix goods, other than alcohol (like ume), with spirits or when so-called maewari, which is shochu mixed with water in advance, is offered for the purpose of selling the beverages (for drinking) in their premises. *It is prohibited to give it to others or sell them for drinking outside their premises. 2 The volume of alcohol that bars and restaurants can sell on their premises must be kept within one kiloliter (that is, 1000 liters) per fiscal year (from April 1 of one year to March 31 of the next year). 3 Deemed production requires advance reporting to the tax office.