An Ode to Ume: Easy Drink Recipes You Can Make From Scratch! (Leavers, too!!)







Leavers and non-leavers alike, there’s still time to get your ume on!

For anyone who’s been missing out on the craze, lemme ‘splain you a thing:

May to June is the season for unripened plums. These bitter fruits are used in making umeshu, also known as plum wine. You see them in stacks at roadside fruit stands and enshrined at the grocery store amid glass jugs and cartons of liquor. Maybe you’ve passed by these and sort of considered making your own umeshu, but it just seemed like a hassle.

Not so, my friend!

“But, Marla. I’m leaving Japan this summer. Leavers ain’t got time for that!”

Wrong again!

If you’re in a time crunch, check out the two non-alcohol options. Both ume sour and ume syrup have much shorter plum soaking times. After, you can consume it all in one wild night before you go, or decant it into a travel-friendly bottle for a little taste of the old country when you’re feeling なつかしい.

For those of you not leaving Japan before September, umeshu is quick and easy to make, and costs around 2000円 per jug to make about 2L from scratch. It also earns you eternal bragging rights of having made your own, and anyone who hasn’t done it (and doesn’t know how easy it is) will be forever impressed.

If you’re going abroad, it makes a really cool gift that you can humble-brag about.

like a boss


“This stuff is amazing! What is it?” says your really cool, never impressed friend.


“Oh, nothing. Just some Japanese plum wine that I made myself,” you say.



While we translate it as “plum wine,” umeshu is actually better categorized as a flavored liqueur or a fruit cordial. You don’t ferment the plums, you just soak them long enough to flavor your base alcohol. Therefore, when making umeshu, the alcohol level will actually decrease. You start with a liquor of at least 35%, and end up with umeshu of around 10-15%. You need a strong liquor to start with in order to prevent bacterial growth as it becomes less alcoholic.



Basic Class

1 4L glass jug (~500 円)

*Using a 4L jug is convenient because plums are often sold in 1 kg bags and for that amount, you will use one full container of liquor. You can find these at most grocery stores this time of year.

1 kg of plums (~400円)

*Medium sized green ones are preferable. Don’t get the ones that look like oversized peas. Nankou ume —南高梅 — are supposed to be the best, but as long as they look green, solid and have no squishy spots, you’re good.

1 package of rock sugar (~400円)

1.8L of cheap, tasteless liquor (~1000円)

*Stores sell “white liquor” for this purpose, but anything that’s 35% alcohol and unflavored will work.


Advanced Class

My favorite part about making umeshu has been experimenting with different variations. Here are a few UMExperiments to consider:

Change the base liquor. Swap out the white liquor for brandy, vodka, shochu, or another spirit—just make sure it’s 35% alcohol or higher. The stronger the taste of it, though, the less you’ll be able to taste the plums. Don’t use wine since it doesn’t have a high enough alcohol percentage.

Change the sweetener. Swap the rock sugar for 2 cups (400cc) honey or 600g of black rock sugar. Adjust up or down for taste. Or try whatever this year’s trending sweetener is. (Is it still agave? Am I out of the loop?)

Add more flavors. You can add in other fruits and spices, such as cherries, strawberries, vanilla beans, cinnamon sticks, et. cetera. You’ll have to do some research into how long these different ingredients should stay in alcohol, since often they require a shorter timespan than the plums. Also, if it’s a shorter time, take care that you have some easy way to remove said ingredients when everything has mixed together. Cheesecloth might work well.



How to make classic umeshu:

Umeshu is actually a pretty forgiving recipe. I’ve forgotten or botched half of these steps and still had perfectly delicious umeshu six months later. I’d say the most important rule here is to make sure your alcohol base is strong enough to prevent bacterial growth.

(Almost the same process as for ume sour.)

  1. Rinse your plums.

You want to get off any grit that’ll fall into your liquid and also any pesticide residue. Use a chopstick or toothpick to pick out the dark stem bits at the top. You don’t want them floating around in your drink when you’re done. Sometimes, it looks like the stem has already been taken out, but if it’s a dark point, it’s a stem.


With Stem














  1. Soak your plums overnight.

Some of the natural bitterness can be drawn out by soaking. You can also skip this step, seeing as we’re going to be dumping a large amount of sugar in there. It changes the flavor a bit, but like I said, it’s a forgiving recipe.


  1. Dry them off.

When you’re ready to sit down and put it all together, take your plums out of the water and set them on a towel to dry while you get other things ready.


  1. Clean and sanitize your jug.

Swirl a few cups of boiling water around in it. Be careful as the glass gets super hot! You can do an extra bit of sanitation on the lids, threads, and inside top of the bottle with a little bit of your alcohol. You just want to make sure nothing gross decides to take advantage of all the sugar and juice.


  1. Put in your plums and sugar.

People love the whole “layer of plums, layer of sugar” look, but I don’t know that it actually matters. I’ve found that the plums quickly begin to rise up, while the sugar sinks down. If it’s aesthetically pleasing to you, go ahead. If not, drop in your plums, then cover with your decided amount of sugar.


  1. Pour in your alcohol.

Your alcohol should cover your plum and sugar mix by about 2 inches/5 cm. There should also be around the same amount of space between the level of alcohol and the neck of the jar.


  1. Put the jug in a dark, cool place.

But not such a dark, cool place that you’ll forget it’s there until you’re moving out however many years down the line. If you put it in a somewhat warm, somewhat light place, your umeshu will probably forgive you anyway. It’s kind like that.


(SPOILER ALERT: If you’re making the recipe for ume sour,  jump ahead to the correct step 8.)


  1. Shake it gently once or twice a month.

This is just to keep your sugar breaking down and everything tasting nice and homogenous, no need to slosh it all over the floor. Also, it keeps anything gross from growing at the top where the alcohol can’t reach.


  1. Take out your plums.

After 3 months, you can either take out your plums or leave them in. They’ve given most of their flavor over at this point, but some people think the flavor is stronger with them in, or just think it looks cool. It’s up to you! The plums are edible, even if they’ve turned brown, and are somewhat alcoholic. Don’t eat and drive!


  1. Enjoy!

Six months is the minimum you’ll want to let it sit. Umeshu gets better with age, so the longer you stretch it out, the better it gets. If you make umeshu again next year, one of the traditions in Japan is to decant each years umeshu into the same jar, that way you always have a bit of history in that bottle.



Going Beyond the Classic


“But, hey! I don’t drink alcohol! And you said you had recipes for leavers!” 😡

Yes, worry not! I didn’t forget you! Now—for those of you who don’t drink alcohol, will be leaving in less than 3 months, or who want to try something different—I present to you: ume sour and ume syrup.
First Up:
Ume Sour

You can make ume sour much the same way as umeshu. Ume sour is usually mixed with soda water or tonic water, and is supposed to be really refreshing during the hot, humid summer.


You will need:

1 4L glass jug

1 kg green plums

500-1000 g of rock sugar (to taste)

1.8 L of cheap vinegar.

*You’ll want to use a light-flavored, clear vinegar, but beyond that, any variety will do. You might find some big, cheap and easy-to-recycle plastic containers of it near the umeshu-making section. This time of year is also the season for making pickled shallots, and the two displays are often together.


How to make ume sour:

Scroll back up to umeshu and follow steps 1- 7. But whenever I’ve written “alcohol,” use your imagination to swap in the word “vinegar.” Then, come back down here and continue from number 8:

(Picking up from Step 7.)

  1. Shake a few times a week

This is to keep everything all mixed and happy. Since the soaking time is shorter, make sure you’re mixing it more often than umeshu. You also want to make sure you get the vinegar up near the top to kill off any opportunistic bacteria. (But don’t end up dumping it on your floor, or I’ll be sad.)


  1. Take our your plums.

Take out the plums after about 1 month, (instead of 3) when the sugar has fully dissolved. You don’t need to let the mixture mature. Because of the concentration of vinegar, ume sour is shelf stable for a good long while.


  1. Enjoy!

Mix a few tablespoons to taste with soda water when you’re feeling zapped in the heat of summer.


Next in Line:
Ume Syrup


This is a quick way to get some ume flavor if you’re heading away from Japan this summer. It takes about a week, and the syrup should last a couple of weeks in the refrigerator, due to the high sugar concentration. If you want it to last longer (and don’t mind a small trace of alcohol after you mix your drink), put a tablespoon or two of flavorless alcohol into it to keep it safe.


You’ll need:

2L glass jug

*You won’t need as large a jar as the other recipes, because you don’t add liquid—it’s all coming from the plums. So pack it right up to the neck. Essentially, you’re using sugar to dehydrate the plums.

1 kg unripened plums

1 kg granulated sugar

*Be careful that you’re using granulated sugar, while the other recipes called for rock sugar.


How to make ume syrup:

  1. Rinse your plums.

You want to get off any grit that’ll fall into your liquid and also any pesticide residue. Use a chopstick or toothpick to pick out the dark stem bits at the top. You don’t want them floating around in your syrup when you’re done.


  1. Freeze your plums overnight.

I’ve read different recommendations. The best seems to be to towel them off and freeze them in a bag overnight. If you have a small freezer or don’t want to wait, alternatively you can poke some holes in them after you wash them. Then dry them as you go onto step 3.


  1. Clean and sanitize your jug.

Swirl a few cups of boiling water around in it. Be careful as the glass gets super hot! You can do an extra bit of sanitation on the lids, threads, and inside top of the bottle with a little bit of your alcohol. You just want to make sure nothing gross decides to take advantage of all the sugar and juice.


  1. Go for the layered look with your plums and sugar.

Unlike with umeshu and ume sour, you want to take care in layering your plums and granulated sugar. The sugar touching the skin of the plums is what’s going to draw the juices out, so you want to make sure each layer of plums has a layer of sugar above and below it.


  1. Put the jug in a dark, cool place.

Definitely make sure not to forget this one, though. Put it somewhere you’ll remember it.


  1. Shake it gently everyday.

This will make sure that all sides of the plums are coming into contact with the sugar. It’ll also stir everything up nicely.


  1. Take out your plums.

This should take about a week. After the plums are looking shriveled and all the sugar has dissolved, take out your plums. Leaving them in for much longer won’t add any more juice, and might make your syrup more bitter.


  1. Enjoy!

Add a few tablespoons to taste into cold soda water or (if you’re sad about not having made umeshu) into some shochu. Maybe make some ume syrup lemonade or ume syrup herbal tea. Decant into a bottle and store in the fridge, because everything in Japan seems to turn to mold otherwise.



Finally, let me know how it all goes! (And invite me to your ume-party. ;>.>)

Last year, I made honey/white liquor umeshu, brandy/white rock sugar umeshu, and classic white rock sugar/white liquor umeshu. This year, I ended up with many bags of plums and I’m trying the following:

  • Ume sour
  • Ume syrup
  • Honey/ white liquor umeshu
  • Black rock sugar / white liquor umeshu
  • White liquor / white rock sugar / red shiso umeshu
  • White liquor / white rock sugar / vanilla bean pods umeshu

Some might end up delicious, some might turn out to be terrible ideas. We’ll see! Good luck!