The mountains and hillsides of Japan are blanketed with some of the world’s finest woodlands and forests; proud, scaly, pointed hinoki trees; beautifully domed, ruddy-leafed maples; giant, venerated sugi cedars dating back thousands of years and my favourite, the gnarled ume trees, with their blackened fingers reaching ever skywards. Nearly always overshadowed by their relative the cherry, the fruit of these wild plum trees (a hard, astringent, mouth puckeringly sour, green apricot) have found their way into Japanese cuisine via two main avenues- as umeboshi, salt-pickled plums coloured with red shiso leaves and normally eaten on a bowl of rice for a invigorating breakfast, or used to flavour the perennially enjoyed liqueur umeshu. Locals scour the countryside looking for these wild plums every year so they can top up their supply of the fruity spirit, families pass down their secret recipes on their deathbeds, and many a Japanese drama has been based upon the bitter-sweet moment that the last drops of a deceased loved one’s plum wine passes over your lips, never to be enjoyed again.
Replicating umeshu outside of Japan can be achieved via a well stocked oriental supermarket in early to mid summer when the ume plums are in season. Doing so creates a delicious drink, but misses out on the connection with nature that one would attain by foraging for the fruits yourself; fortunately, an equally fragrant and acerbic but darker hued plum can be found in hedgerows and fields all across the UK- the sloe. This bluish black, marble-sized treasure has been used for decades to flavour and colour gin, making it the perfect candidate for adding to shochu- Japan’s clear alcohol of choice- along with some rock sugar and a little patience to create a hybrid liqueur celebrating both the spirit of the Japanese classic and the abundant autumnal harvest of an often ignored British fruit.
Rock sugar is traditionally used when making umeshu as the crystals dissolve more slowly than granulated sugar, giving the alcohol plenty of time to extract the scent and flavour from the plums resulting in a fruitier finished product. If you can’t get your hands on rock sugar (or ‘candy’ as it’s often labelled in Chinese supermarkets) then you can use granulated sugar instead, but only add it to the liqueur after it has had a month or two of steeping with the fruit to keep the flavours properly balanced.
Cheers! Or should that be kanpai!?
- 700ml shochu, we like to use barley shochu because of its milder flavour
- 300g rock sugar
- 500g sloes
- Sterilize a two litre, wide-mouthed jar by filling it with boiling water and allowing it to stand for ten minutes; fill the lid with boiling water too if possible. Carefully pour away the hot water from the jar and allow it to air dry before continuing. Wash and dry the sloes well, prick them all over with a pin or needle, then add a handful into the bottom of the jar. Sprinkle in a layer of rock sugar, and continue with more sloes then more sugar- layering each alternately until you have used all of the fruit and sugar up.
- Pour the shochu over the top of the sugar and fruit, then put the lid on the jar and allow to age in a cool, dark place for at least 6 months and ideally a year. It isn’t necessary to shake the jar- it’s best to let the sugar liquefy slowly so that the sloe’s flavours and natural fruit sugars infuse into the liqueur fully- but it is a good idea to have a look at it from time to time to make sure all the fruit remains submerged and no mould has appeared.
- When the fruit has infused for the desired amount of time, pass the slo-chu through a sieve to remove the fruits, then strain it again through a paper coffee filter in order to get rid of any fine particles and to keep the liqueur nice and clear. Pour the mahogany hued slo-chu into a clean bottle and drink immediately or store, again in a cool, dark place for as long as you can resist.
Makes approximately 1 litre slo-chu.
Four ways to drink your slo-chu:
Slo-chu on the rocks– simply pour a serving of slo-chu over ice cubes in a whisky glass and enjoy.
Slo-chu-hi– half fill a highball glass with ice, pour over a serving of slo-chu and top up with soda to create a refreshing long drink, perfect for early autumn.
Slo-chu Oyuwari– mix equal quantities of warm water and slo-chu in a tumbler for a gently warming treat on a cold evening.
Slo-chu Ochawari– mix some hot black tea with an equal quantity of slo-chu in a teacup for a fruity, soothing toddy or a festive nightcap.