What Is Umeshu? Is It Really Plum Wine?

Domenic Alonge

Table of Contents

    “Umeshu,” often referred to as plum wine, is a beguiling beverage that leverages the sour characteristics of its namesake fruit, rendering them into a refreshing and punchy drink that is as versatile as it is delicious. With an alias like plum wine, it would stand to reason that umeshu is simply a wine made from plums rather than grapes, but in truth it is more like a plum liqueur. So as the plum blossoms are beginning to brighten the dreary late winter landscape in Japan, let’s take a closer look at umeshu.

    What is plum wine?

    Umeshu strictly translated is “ume alcohol.” The “shu” part of umeshu can refer to any type of alcohol, from whisky to sake to wine, so importers and marketers settled on the use of “wine” in its place — perhaps to convey the fruity flavor that is so much a part of what makes it enjoyable. The reason that umeshu is not plum wine is that wine is fermented, and umeshu is not strictly a fermented beverage. It has the most in common with liqueurs, in that it is flavored with fruit (ume) and has an alcohol base, as well as prominent sweetness as part of its flavor profile. Umeshu is made in Japan from various alcohol bases, unripened ume (Prunus mume) and, usually, sugar. Very few are made through the fermentation of ume juice, however one example is Hakutsuru “Plum Wine.”

    In fact, some scientific texts refer to Prunus mume as Japanese apricot even though the tree originated in southern China. Various forms of ume-based drinks exist in many countries where the fruit grows. Korea has maesil ju, with a soju base and added honey instead of sugar. In Taiwan, wumeijiu adds oolong tea and smoked plum into the mix. In many ways, the question “What is plum wine?” is similar to the often-asked question “What is rice wine?”

    Is plum wine sweet?

    While some varieties of umeshu are sweeter than others, as a whole, it is generally on the sweet side. Versions of umeshu are available that don’t use added sugar, and these would tend to be less sweet. However, the tartness from the ume and the alcohol is what helps balance out the sweetness and makes umeshu so refreshing, rather than cloying. The tug of war between sweet and sour is evident across all serving temperatures to different degrees. With gentle warming, umeshu’s depth is drawn out and its aromas amplified. When enjoyed chilled, the sweetness and sour tang become uplifting and refreshing. Often, notes of almond and marzipan are notable, coaxed from the pit of the fruit during the soaking and aging. Each product page on Tippsy comes with its own temperature recommendations, so check them out!

    How much alcohol is in plum wine?

    The level of alcohol remaining in the final product depends to an extent on the type of alcohol used to produce the drink. When umeshu is made from shochu, which is the most common base, the alcohol present in the umeshu can be as high as 20%. Umeshu made from ume soaked in sake can have an alcohol percentage as low as 9%. (This is the type Tippsy carries.) Most beer falls below this range, while most wines fall within this range. Distilled spirits like whiskey and vodka are much higher in alcohol than plum wine.

    Is plum wine healthy? Health benefits of plum wine

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    Umeboshi are pickled or salted ume. Usually rather sour and salty, umeboshi can be an acquired taste. It has been enjoyed by the Japanese for centuries as a superfood, said to improve metabolism, liver function, blood pressure and more.

    While anything in excess, particularly alcoholic beverages, can be unhealthy, umeshu has been touted over the centuries in Eastern Asia for a wide variety of medicinal effects. All over the world, alcohol is used to extract medicinal components from all manner of fruits and plants, and umeshu is no different. It may be different in that it is the most delicious “medicine” I’ve ever tried.

    Enjoyed by many as a warm weather tonic, umeshu is refreshing during oppressive summer heat and humidity, and its ample amount of citric acid can aid in reducing fatigue by helping to eliminate lactic acid in the body. As an aperitif, umeshu’s alkalinity helps aid digestion, especially after consuming richer, more acidic foods. Polyphenols in ume fruit are also noted for their antioxidant properties. New research has even shown that umeshu contains a compound not present in the ume itself that can help improve blood flow in the body. Learn more about the health benefits of sake.

    What is umeshu?

    Umeshu is a liqueur made from a straightforward process of steeping ume fruit in sake, shochu or other spirit, often with sugar. The mixture is left undisturbed for at least six months, and when the time is right, it is bottled, sometimes with the fruit remaining whole inside, like this plum wine by Choya Umeshu.

    There are records of sake being used as a steeping liquid for umeshu that date back to the 1800s, and there is evidence that in Japan, the tradition of making umeshu coincides with the birth of shochu production in the late 1600s. Consuming dried and salted or otherwise preserved ume fruit as medicine dates back more than 2,000 years in China, and the fruit was brought to Japan just a few centuries later. Umeboshi, or salted pickled ume, have been part of the Japanese diet for millennia. Most of the ume that are used for umeshu come from mountainous Wakayama prefecture, where nearly half of the Japanese ume is grown and from which the prized Nankou ume hails.

    What is ume?

    Ume, or Prunus mume, is a unique fruit in the same genus as apricots, nectarines, almonds and cherries. The fruit itself is actually closer to an apricot than what we know of as a plum in North America. Ume has a substantially higher acidity than plum, which renders the ripe fruit (though edible) mostly unpalatable. The plant is native to southwestern China’s mountainous regions and has been cultivated mainly in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam.

    Umeshu is not wine

    As mentioned previously, wine refers to an alcoholic beverage produced by simple fermentation of the sugars that are present. There is generally no fermentation happening in the production of umeshu; it is rather a process of extraction. The steeping of the sour ume in alcohol and sugar pulls juices and nutrients out into the liquid, which, over time, develops into the balanced liquid that we know as umeshu. Typically, the plums are left to steep for around six months or until the flavors come into balance.

    How to make homemade plum wine/umeshu

    If you have access to green, unripened ume fruit when it is available, you can try to make some umeshu yourself. Some households in Japan have their own batch of umeshu going year round. You can check your local Asian market for ume around early June. Shochu and rock sugar (preferred for slow dissolution) are also available at many Asian markets, and if not, vodka or any other flavorless white alcohol of about 35% ABV can be used. So can sake!

    The process of making umeshu begins by washing the fruit, soaking them and removing the stems. The ume are then placed in a sterile vessel and rock sugar is added by weight (about 50% to 80% the weight of the ume) in alternating layers. The mix is then covered by adding the liquid and left to sit for at least six months.

    How to drink and serve

    Umeshu can be enjoyed chilled, on the rocks, warmed or at room temperature. Serving it colder makes for a more refreshing drink during the warmer months, and also mellows out some of the sweetness of umeshu. Sweeter varieties of umeshu are better suited to this technique. During colder months, umeshu can be heated up to increase the aroma and the depth of flavor. Umeshu can also be mixed with seltzer water, sparkling wine or other liqueurs and flavorings used to make cocktails. Explore the Tippsy blog further to learn about plum sake pairings, and consult our Sake Guide for more tips on drinking and serving sake.

    3 easy plum wine and umeshu cocktail recipes

    I hardly ever use sake as a mixer, but the concentrated fruity flavor of umeshu, as well as its sweetness, make it an excellent choice for making cocktails. Here are a few simple recipes to help you mix things up.

    Umeshu spritzer

    • Umeshu
    • Soda water
    • Lime wedge

    Sometimes keeping it simple is best, and you can’t really go wrong with this simple cocktail! Combine 2 parts soda water to 1 part umeshu and serve over ice. Squeeze the lime over the top and serve.

    Ume shisojito

    • 45 milliliters umeshu
    • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
    • 3 fresh shiso leaves
    • 2 lime wedges
    • Club soda to taste

    This distinct take on the classic mojito swaps out mint for shiso and is inspired by one of my favorite umeshu from Houraisen, which was made with shiso paste added to the extraction. Muddle the brown sugar, shiso and lime. Add the umeshu, and finish with club soda to taste.

    Umeshu iced coffee

    • Umeshu
    • Black coffee

    For an unconventional cocktail that will perk you up during the summer heat, try umeshu iced coffee. Take black coffee and combine it with umeshu at a ratio of 3 parts coffee to 1 part umeshu. Stir them together and serve over ice. The sweetness of the umeshu is offset by the bitterness of the coffee and makes for a drink that is stimulating and refreshing at the same time. Step out of your comfort zone and try this unconventional and surprising combination.

    3 best plum wines for beginners

    There are a variety of plum wines available with some key differences that set them apart from each other. For those of you who are just entering the wonderful world of umeshu, here are three bottles that will help you set out in the right direction and help you find your preferences.

    Choya “Plum Wine” (with fruit)

    There’s no better way to get to know umeshu than by grabbing a bottle of Choya with the ume still inside. The sweetness and punchy, fruity sourness are in direct opposition, and balance each other in this umeshu. Its somewhat higher alcohol percentage (15%) makes it a good candidate for mixing as well as warming. When the bottle is empty (which it soon will be), you can get insight into the essence of umeshu by tasting the fruit itself, which is totally edible and delicious. This was the first umeshu that I tried and it has become, to some extent, synonymous with umeshu, even though it is slightly sweeter and stronger than most.

    Nanbu Bijin “Plum Sake”

    Coming from Iwate prefecture, this umeshu is remarkable for a number of reasons, first and foremost in that the steeping liquid is a type of sake called all koji. Because all koji is sweet on its own, Nanbu Bijin doesn’t add any sugar to this umeshu, which is rare. Lower in alcohol percentage (8%) and with a pinkish hue, this is a dry, sophisticated and smooth umeshu that, once it is in your glass, is hard — really hard — to stop sipping.

    Sawanotsuru “Plum Sake”

    This umeshu is the result of years of craftsmanship, and not only is it delicious, it’s also an excellent value for aged sake. Premium ume are added to koshu, or aged sake, that has been maturing for three years to make this plum wine. The flavor is on the rich and sweet end of the spectrum. It is robust, concentrated and makes for a fantastic stand-alone aperitif. It is just divine when slightly warmed.

    8 major umeshu and plum wine brands

    Some of the biggest names in Japanese beverages have thrown their hat into the ring of umeshu production, and some have been at it for quite some time. Even if you’ve never tried some of the brands mentioned below, there is a very good chance you will recognize at least a few.

    Choya Umeshu

    Ripe ume fruit are washed at Choya Umeshu’s brewery before being used in their products.

    Ripe ume fruit are washed at Choya Umeshu’s brewery before being used in their products. | Courtesy of Choya Umeshu.

    Choya Umeshu started as a grape grower and winemaker in the early 1900s and became an umeshu producer in the 1950s. The company has grown to be a truly international presence in the realm of umeshu. It’s only 5.5% ABV, but with Choya “Sparkling Plum Wine”, you’ll have everything you need to make your next toast memorable and delicious!


    Takara is another mammoth presence in the brewing industry with a strong presence in the U.S. and Japan. They make everything from shochu to sake to mirin in quantities that would make one’s head spin — or at least reach for a glass of umeshu! Takara’s 12% ABV plum wine is widely available and is many folks’ first plum wine, as well as the reason they keep coming back for more.


    There’s no doubt that many of us who’ve never tried sake are still familiar with Kikkoman, the global producer and distributor of products across the spectrum of Asian cuisine. It makes sense, then, that they would also have an umeshu product as well. Their 12.5% ABV plum wine is rich and sweet, and has probably been the first glass of umeshu for many around the world.

    Hakutsuru Brewing Company

    Hakutsuru Brewing Company in Hyogo prefecture.

    Hakutsuru Brewing Company in Hyogo prefecture. | Courtesy of Hakutsuru Brewing Company.

    I am a huge fan of Hakutsuru Brewing Company because they manage to create consistently great sake in spite of being one of the top three brewers by volume in all of Japan. Their products are accessible, straightforward, and always exhibit an exquisite balance, and their Hakutsuru “Plum Wine” is no different. At 12.5% ABV, this fruit-forward umeshu has a lovely aroma and is slightly tart and slightly sweet. It’s a perfect companion for a wide range of foods, and appeals to a broad swath of drinkers.


    Another powerhouse brewer, Gekkeikan is responsible for a number of innovations in sake brewing, and they make more sake than pretty much anybody in Japan. It is no surprise that Gekkeikan has a respectable, affordable umeshu that many newcomers flock to, as this is a brand that is available in most liquor stores in the U.S. At 13% ABV, Plum Gekkeikan is made using ume from Wakayama prefecture, and the result is a sweet, fruity nose with a big impact and smooth, soft finish.


    It probably shouldn’t surprise you that beverage juggernaut Suntory makes umeshu. This Japanese producer, famous for their spirits, brings things full circle by lending their art to the traditional Japanese drink of umeshu. Their 17% ABV Yamazaki Distillery Reserve Suntory Umeshu adds vanilla notes to the complex fruit of their umeshu by way of whisky barrel aging.


    The Fu-Ki brand of plum wine is made by Godo Shusei Co., Ltd., a Japanese producer of sake and shochu. The 9% ABV semi-sweet plum wine is made by combining grape wine with ume and other flavorings, making the umeshu experience affordable for everyone.


    Bottles of Momokawa, another SakéOne brand, are labeled in their Oregon facility.

    Bottles of Momokawa, another SakéOne brand, are labeled in their Oregon facility. | Courtesy of SakéOne.

    Moonstone “Plum” is one of just three varieties of fruit-flavored junmai ginjo sake made in the Oregon production center of SakéOne, where they have been brewing sake since 1997. Their clean and sturdy sake serves as the base for a number of novel fruit-infused brews, which also include “Asian Pear” and “Coconut Lemongrass.” Their “Plum” variety carries a hint of almond on the nose, and with only 7% ABV, you can have a bottle to yourself and live to tell the tale.

    Embrace the variety and the seasons

    From the first appearance of plum blossoms, which herald the waning of winter and the harvesting of ume during the heavy rains of June, umeshu production is inextricably linked to the seasons, as well as to the history of Japan and Eastern Asia. What began as medicine thousands of years ago has made its way into glasses and won over many hearts around the world. With its fruit-forward focus and lingering sweetness, it is perhaps the most approachable of all sake-adjacent beverages. The ample varieties and takes on the umeshu style from a wide array of stellar producers in Japan and in the U.S. means that even if you have already begun your umeshu journey, odds are the end is nowhere near in sight. And if you’re still curious, check out our Sake Guide to learn more about what sake is and how it’s made.


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    Takemura, Shigeki & Yoshimasu, Kouichi & Mure, Kanae & Fukumoto, Jin & Nishio, Nobuhiro & Kitano, Naomi & Kishida, Kunihiro & Yano, Fumiko & Mitani, Takahiko & Takeshita, Tatsuya & Miyashita, Kazuhisa. “Are Umezu polyphenols in the Japanese plum (Prunus Mume) protective against mild hypertension and oxidation? Evidence from a double-blind randomized placebo-controlled trial.” Open Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2013.

    “Product Specification of Geographical Indication “和歌山梅酒(Wakayama Umeshu).” National Tax Agency of Japan.

    Domenic Alonge

    Domenic Alonge

    Domenic Alonge is an Advanced Sake Professional, International Kikizake-shi. His work in sake breweries in Japan, Europe and the U.S., as well as his experience as the owner of North Carolina’s first sake-only bottle shop inform his writing and his videos which he now creates as the Sake Geek. Follow him on YouTube and on sake-geek.com.

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