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!?