Umeshu Is The New Sake | CoolJapan

Umeshu is a traditional Japanese liqueur made by steeping ume fruit, commonly referred to as Japanese plum. We were surprised to learn that, technically, ume is not a plum; it’s closer to an apricot — ume has an acid content of four to five per cent, compared to the one to two per cent acidity found in plum. It is the citric acid from the fruit that gives Umeshu that tart and tangy flavour.

Shigehiro Kondo of CHOYA

Shigehiro Kondo, CEO of CHOYA

We had a chance to speak to Shigehiro Kondo, CEO of CHOYA, the biggest producer of Umeshu in the world, at the company’s headquarters in Hakibino, Osaka. The Kondo family founded CHOYA in 1914 with an initial focus on growing wine-grapes before starting the production of Umeshu in 1954. 

With its four distinct seasons, Japan's climate is ideally suited to the cultivation of ume, a fruit that has been a vital part of daily life for the Japanese since ancient times. But CHOYA’s Umeshu-making has undergone significant changes over the years. In the beginning, the fruit was soaked in koshu, a type of aged sake; this was later replaced with single-distilled shochu, then multiple-distilled shochu. 

Kondo shared that CHOYA uses only premium ume, mainly the Nanko-ume varietal from Wakayama Prefecture that boasts distinctive plumb flesh and high acidity, making it particularly suitable for Umeshu production. Steeping the whole fruit in alcohol allows the ume flavour to be extracted not only from the flesh and skin but also from the stone. It is this process which gives CHOYA Umeshu its unique fruity bouquet, with notes of almond and marzipan.

The CHOYA Products

We had tastings of various The CHOYA labels while Kondo regaled us with a background on CHOYA and Umeshu. The CHOYA Single Year would sit well with novices to this fruit liqueur; it’s easy to like with its wild honey, candied orange and almond notes that reminded us of a Muscat. Meanwhile, The CHOYA Aged 3 Years is more assertive, harbouring a mellow rum-like mouthfeel. We also sampled the limited-edition The CHOYA From The Barrel that is aged for three years in fibreglass tanks without any additives before being transferred to French oak casks for further ageing of two years, giving it a complex, smoky flavour that leaves a mild aftertaste of wine.

 The CHOYA Umeshu Aged 3 Years

There are three classic ways to drink Umeshu: neat in a chilled glass, on the rocks, or mixed with warm water for wintry nights. CHOYA’s website also suggests innovative cocktail recipes in an endeavour to widen the appeal of Umeshu to the new generation of tipplers. 

Shigehiro Kondo has ambitious plans  to conquer the world with its “The CHOYA” branding to make it synonymous with Umeshu. Look out sake; someone’s hot on your heels.