YOU SAY UMESHU
If you like your drinks like your female comedians - dry, tart and slightly sweet – you’ll love umeshu
Move over sake, meet our new go-to Japanese tipple.
IN CASE YOU NEEDED ANOTHER REASON TO LOVE JAPAN (other than matcha Kitkats and truly excellent drugstore sunscreen), here it is: umeshu. Say it with me: ooh-mesh-ooh. If you’ve ever tried sake and found it a little harsh, umeshu is the answer. If you’ve ever had a bit too much wine in the afternoon and found yourself in bed by 6pm, umeshu is the answer.
A primer: umeshu is a Japanese liqueur made by steeping unripe ume fruits (similar to apricots) in sake (and sometimes shochu, sake’s cooler cousin) and sugar. The result is a slightly sweet, slightly sour, mostly dry drink that’s perfect for sipping but also very versatile. Have it on ice, with a spritz of soda, in a cocktail or on its own. Like sake, you can drink it cold in summer and warmed in winter. It can also be low in alcohol – starting at around 5 per cent as opposed to white wine’s 11 per cent, so you can sip it all afternoon long and not want to take off your heels for the walk home.
When he co-founded Black Market Sake eight years ago, Matt Young admits umeshu wasn’t on his radar. “But a friend and I took a trip to Kyoto about two years after we started the company, and he convinced me to give this particular variety a go. It blew me away – it was really tart and acidic and crisp, not sweet. I fell in love with it.”
Lou Dowling is the co-owner of natural wine store P&V Wine And Liquor and a massive umeshu fan. She says it’s definitely growing in popularity here, as we get more familiar with sake and shochu, and want to move on to other Japanese drinks. Her current favourite is Heiwa Shuzo Tsuru-ume Nigori Umeshu. “It’s got this very lively acidity, which makes it perfect for drinking on its own, or as a spritz,” she says.
Young and Dowling agree that navigating the umeshu aisle isn’t as simple as choosing a shiraz to go with dinner. “Unless you read Japanese, it’s going to be hard to figure out which umeshu to choose,” says Young. “But talk to the salesperson and explain what you like in a wine – something dry, full-bodied, fruity – and they can steer you from there.” Like anything, he adds, the more you spend, the better the quality of umeshu. “Umeshu used to be thought of as a drink for people who didn’t like drinking, because it was sweet and didn’t have a high alcohol content,” he says. “But today’s umeshu producers are making liqueurs that are layered and complex and most of all, really fucking good.” Kanpai!