Umeshu is a Japanese liqueur often also called "plum wine" (though it's technically a cordial or liqueur), made by steeping unripened ume fruits (Japanese apricots) in sugar and alcohol. The standard alcohol used is shochu, also known as "white liquor" or "soju". Shochu is made from barley, sweet potato or grains, and is most similar to vodka in flavor.
Umeshu can be enjoyed as-is, as well as on the rocks (umeshu rokku), with club soda (umeshu soda), with tonic (umeshu tonikku), or even with very hot water (umeshu no oyuwari). I personally prefer umeshu 1:1 with tonic water over ice, as I feel that the tonic water helps cut some of the umeshu's sweetness.
Ume are only in season for a short period of time, typically late May/early June. I ordered mine via Mitsuwa's mail order department; they do not advertise the fresh ume on their website, so you must call to order (1-877-MITSUWA). The price is $7.99/lb, but they require Next Day Air shipping from California, so the shipping/handling will be significant.
Rock sugar is preferred over plain granulated sugar since it dissolves more slowly; you should be able to find rock sugar at any Asian market. The general rule of thumb is, for whatever weight of ume you use, you use one-half of that weight in rock sugar. For this batch, I am using 2 lbs of fresh ume (about 1 kilogram), so I will use 1 lb (about 500g) of rock sugar.
Shochu cannot be purchased anywhere in the state of Alabama, so I used vodka. If you can't find shochu, vodka is a perfectly acceptable substitute. You don't have to purchase a high-end vodka; I find that Smirnoff works great!
1 kilogram ume (about 2 lbs)
500g rock sugar (about 1 lb)
2 liters shochu or vodka
First, wash the ume. Using a toothpick or bamboo skewer, carefully dig out the stems. Drain the ume in a colander and lay atop towels to dry COMPLETELY.
Weigh the plums and set aside, discarding any bruised or rotten ume.
This one did NOT make the cut.
If desired, you can prick holes in the ume to help them release their juices more quickly. It's not a necessary step, and I don't do it.
Weigh out the rock sugar to 1/2 of the weight of the ume. Next, place about 1/3 of the ume in the bottom of your jar. Top the ume with a layer of rock sugar. Continue layering the ume and sugar until all are used up.
Top the ume and sugar with shochu (or vodka) until the ume is covered by about 1". Securely place the lid on the jar and keep the jar in a cool, dark place. Gently shake the jar every few weeks to combine the sugar and the alcohol.
After a few days, the ume will change from hard and green, to wrinkled and yellowish. The sugar will fall to the bottom of the jar and begin to dissolve.
The umeshu will be ready to drink after about 6 months; ideally it is best to wait about 1 year to drink, as the flavor will mellow out considerably. I will be sure to update this post once the umeshu is ready.
The umeshu is now ready, after 5 months. I chose to re-use some storebought umeshu bottles that Mom and I saved over the last few months. I also included a few of the ume in the bottle as well.
If you wish to enjoy umeshu without going through the process of making your own, you can purchase it at most liquor stores. Here in Birmingham, I have only found one package store that carries true umeshu: Highland Package Store. I highly recommend Choya Umeshu, which runs about $13 per bottle.