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Friday, April 14, 2006

UMESHU

Sweet tipple comes of age


Special to The Japan Times

As the weather warms up, it is hard to resist a refreshing glass of umeshu on the rocks. This Japanese liqueur is often translated as "plum wine," though the ume it is derived from is more closely related to the apricot. At any rate, as an aperitif, it whets the appetite; after a hard day's work, it reinvigorates and reenergizes.

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Umeshu is experiencing something of a mini-boom at the moment. While jizake (local sake) and shochu have made a big impact on the market, umeshu has slowly been climbing in popularity. Many have jumped on the bandwagon as it is considered a "healthy" alcoholic beverage. But this isn't really news: The medicinal properties of ume were mentioned in "Ishinho," Japan's oldest publication, over a thousand years ago (984 to be exact). Ume supposedly helps aid digestion, relieves fatigue and may even help prevent stomach cancer.

News photo
Umeshu, prized for its smooth taste and purported health benefits, is currently experiencing a mini-boom, and izakaya such as Ichi no Ya (above, below) in Monzennakacho are perfect places to sample regional versions of this traditional tipple.

Although production of umeshu in Japan dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1867), its origins can be traced back to Korea and China. Green apricots were used as medicinal ingredients in China more than 3,000 years ago, while the production of umeboshi (dried ume) in Japan started way in the sixth century. Choya, the king of umeshu, has a relatively short history of making the beverage, dating back to 1959. The Osaka-based company's portfolio now includes over two dozen products, which are widely available at convenience stores and supermarkets.

Umeshu is gradually shaking off its stereotypical image of being the homemade brew that grandma sipped in summer. A survey conducted by beverage producer Takara Shuzo showed that umeshu is no longer perceived as just a "feminine drink." More importantly, the growing array of products on the market offers a wider flavor profile, far beyond the traditional syrupy sweet concoctions.

Recently, producers of sake and shochu have been adding umeshu to their lineup. With an eye on consumers who are drinking umeshu for health reasons, some producers are making umeshu with black sugar (kokuto), which is rich in vitamins and minerals and has long been a part of the healthy Okinawan diet. Honey-based (hachimitsu) umeshu, as well, has the perception of being good for you.

Retail stores are now carrying a wider selection, beyond that of major producers such as Choya and Takara Shuzo, and it's not uncommon to see umeshu-tasting specials at the bars and restaurants that offer fine shochu and nihonshu.

Traditional umeshu is based on shochu and rock sugar, but these days there are plenty made from mirin, sake, brandy or awamori. Another option being explored is umeshu aged in whiskey barrels, which imparts toasty notes. Sorting through all of these flavors and finding the right one for you is part of the fun -- or challenge, depending on how you look at it.

Like jizake, high quality umeshu (not mass-produced and free of additives) are worth the hunt. These are produced by small breweries, mostly by hand, and offer a bit of the local flavor of their region.



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