East Meets West: A Crash Course in Plum Spirits
Colloquially referred to as "plum wine," umeshu is a traditional Japanese fruit liqueur made of green, unripened Japanese plums called — you guessed it — ume. The unripened ume fruit are left to steep in sugar and distilled liquor for at least three to six months in a cold, dark place. A homemade staple in Japan, umeshu is often brewed annually - typically in early summer - or in anticipation of weddings or other momentous occasions. Once adequately aged and ripened, the finished product has a moderately acidic, sour flavor with a subtle plum aroma, possessing a pleasant, marzipan-like sweetness, and a 10-15% ABV.
Like sake and other Japanese spirits, umeshu can be enjoyed hot or cold — as different temperatures emphasize different aspects of the flavor profile. For example, the almondy sweetness can best be observed at room temp. Served hot, umeshu’s plum aroma comes forward and the overall effect is a richer taste. For a more refreshingly tart experience, try it chilled. Umeshu has a rather syrupy body, and is commonly served on the rocks (umeshu rokku), with tonic water, or more traditionally with green tea (ochawari).
Be advised that some “umeshu” is made without any plums at all, but instead with additives and perfumes that emulate the ume flavor. Look for "Honkaku Umeshu" labelling to be sure you’re getting the real deal. For a taste of the true umeshu experience made from real ume plums, Choya Umeshu and Takara Plum Wine are a great place to start.
Meanwhile, the plum spirit (or plum brandy) on Eastern European’s lips is Slivovitz - a clear fruit brandy or rakija (also spelled rakia) made from fermented Damson plums. While versions of it are found all over Europe (Germany, France, and Greece to name a few), Serbia has the honor of claiming Slivovitz as their official national drink. Like umeshu, Slivovitz has long been a DIY tradition in old-country kitchens and a must-have bottle for celebratory moments. With deep ties to Serbian culture, Slivovitz is imbibed at all important rites of passage and used in numerous folk remedies. In Poland, the cauldron-fermented spirit is also known to be popular at Passover.
Taste-wise, Slivovitz is known for its fruit-forward aroma and sweet yet fiery flavor. You’d be wise to take caution on your first sip as Slivovitz packs quite a punch. The final product clocks in somewhere between 38-50% ABV. Pretty potent stuff.
While it may seem challenging to incorporate into a cocktail, fear not. Bartender Tony Gonzalez of District in Los Angeles has this to say about it:
“[Slivovitz] has very distinct qualities that you cannot find in other brandies … or any other spirit, for that matter. I love how the subtle sweetness of the plum breaks through the heat of the alcohol, giving [it] a very hot, slightly fruity body.”
“I see all alcohol as a chef would look at a spice cabinet; all spirits have a pairing profile that can be altered by another ingredient, and slivovitz is no different.”
Gonzalez uses Strykover Premium Slivovitz to build one of District’s signature cocktails. Other readily-available bottles include Zwack Unicum’s Szilva Liqueur and Bistro Slivovitz Plum Brandy.
Rounding out the plum spirit offerings is UME, a delightfully tart and subtly sweet fruit liqueur with a rather unique quality… a dazzling royal purple hue. If Umeshu and Slivovitz are the plum spirits of the past, UME Plum Liqueur may very well be the plum spirit of the future. Conceived in 2020, UME takes inspiration from the traditional methods of Japan and Eastern Europe and brings them into the 21st century, resulting in a totally new yet familiar experience. Founders Jenn Toyzer and Katy Brandes partnered with California molecular spirits producer Endless West to, well, science the sh*t out of a new kind of plum liqueur.
Endless West analyzed which molecules were responsible for the desired characteristics of a perfect plum liqueur, including fruitiness, tartness, sweetness, acidity, aroma and mouthfeel. Next, they went to work extracting identical molecules from plums, grapes, dark cherries, and other all-natural sources. UME’s stunning purple color? That comes from anthocyanin — a natural pigment found in red cabbage, lavender, and butterfly pea flower. Due to anthocyanin’s unstable pH, UME has a mesmerizing color-changing effect depending on the acidity or alkalinity of what it’s mixed with. Yeah, science!
This attention to literally molecular-level detail results in a fine-tuned, perfectly balanced product. UME’s bright acidity is in perfect equilibrium with its sweetness, while having a relatively low sugar content compared to other aperitifs. This balancing act also extends to its ABV of 17% — making it ideal for both mixing and sipping.
Like Japanese umeshu, UME can be enjoyed on the rocks, as a base-spirit in cocktails, or even an addition to cocktails you already know and love. According to Greg Kong, Head Bartender at Kimika in New York City, “Ume is a very versatile product that can be used in place of a lot of different ingredients behind the bar.” In particular, UME is an excellent substitute for citrus in a cocktail, “…you want to be able to get that acidity in a drink without adding tons of fresh citrus, so it’s actually a really nice way to balance things out.”