Monday, October 2, 2017

Cocktails, anyone?

If you are anything like me, you probably like the sweetish and fruity Japanese liquor known as umeshu that’s sold with a couple of little fruits stuck inside the simple green glass bottle. I’m not going to name any brands here, but you probably know which one I’m talking about.

What you probably don’t know is that this is quite easy to make. Plus, you can use a good grade of alcohol (I like Korean soju, a higher octane white liquor that is much stronger than what usually goes into the stuff sold as plum wine) that makes this perfect for cocktails. 

I also prefer my drinks less sweet than what is usually commercially available, so a little DIY makes that possible.

Another good thing about making your own homemade booze is that you can put lots and lots of fruit in the mix, which gives the flavor a lovelier punch. My plum liquor really tastes like plums – a cause for celebration in my book.

I’ve been making this liquor for years and never get tired of it, not only because it really is quite tasty, but also this gives me a chance to play around with it a whole lot. 

For example, in today’s recipe, you will find perilla leaves (also known as zĭsū 紫蘇 or shiso) adding wonderful depth to the brew. It’s sort of a vegetal note that contrasts well with all that fruitiness. You might have only run across perilla in Japanese dishes like sushi or pickles, but they are delicious and go especially well with stone fruit like these plums.

One thing on the nomenclature before we go much further: the fruit known as méizi 梅子 in Chinese are actually a type of apricot. Sometimes these are referred to as “Japanese apricots,” but they originated in China  just saying. They are almost always used when they are still firm and green for preserves, pickles, or in wines/liquors. 

So beautiful at this point
You will find them in East Asian markets around the beginning of summer, and when that happens, snap them up immediately because their season is a short one.

All you need to do is slash their skins and then soak them overnight in salted water to leach out some of the bitterness. Then, just toss them in a jar with your soju, rock sugar, and optional perilla leaves. After that, simply give them the time to get to know each other – six months or more is ideal, and longer is even better – before breaking out your now dusty but delicious bottle.

If you don’t have Asian apricots in your area, stay tuned for next week, where I’ll show you how to use a different – but just as delicious – fruit to make an aromatic brew that will knock your socks off, as well as a couple ideas for Chinese-inspired cocktails.

Is it 4:00 yet somewhere in the world?

Homemade plum liquor
Korean soju
Zìzhì méizijĭu 自製梅子酒
Japan via Taiwan
Makes around 3 quarts (3 liters)

Around 3 pounds (1.5 kgs) green “Japanese” apricots
Cool water, as needed
2 tablespoons sea salt
About 2 pounds (1 kg) yellow rock sugar, or more if you like this relatively sweet
1 bunch perilla, optional
3 (1.75 l) bottles soju, Jinro brand recommended

1. Rinse the apricots well and check them over as you do so. You can trim any that have tiny nicks or bruises, but discard ones that are rotted or have insects roaming around inside. Pluck off the stems as you find them, and then slash the skin of each fruit 4 to 5 times. 

2. Place the prepped fruit in a large work bowl, cover with cool water, add the salt, and stir them around a bit to more or less dissolve the salt. Leave the bowl in a cool area overnight.

3. The next day, rinse the fruit well. Drain them in a colander and then rub the fruit lightly with a clean towel. Place the fruit in a 3 quart (3 l) or larger jar. Add the rock sugar and optional perilla, and then pour the soju over everything. 

Slash the skins
4. Cover the jar and set it somewhere convenient on the counter so that you can swish it around every day for about a week – this will help dissolve the sugar and also ensure that the fruits don’t get a chance to mold before they sink to the bottom of the jar. Enjoy this time, since the sugar will start to dissolve in the alcohol and will make the bottom of the jar look kind of magical, while the fruits bob around on top.

5. When the fruit has sunk to the bottom of the jar, place the covered jar somewhere quiet where it can mature for 6 or more months. You can drink it any time you like, but it does get better the longer it sits. The liquor is, of course, really good, and the fruits are lovely as little treats, too, but the perilla should be discarded. I either just ladle out the liquor as it is needed or put it up in smaller bottles, but with mouths large enough for the fruits to go in and out easily. And you definitely want to put those plums in the liquor, as they continue to mellow over time and turn into little amber morsels. I have some from about a decade ago, and they are now soft and delectable, and of course the liqueur is as smooth as satin. 


  1. The first image of this post caught my eye! Seven years ago I went back to Taiwan for a family visit, and my grandfather had an almost identical-looking jar on his TV console. At the time, my Taiwanese was nonexistent and my Mandarin shoddy at best; similarly, my grandfather's Mandarin is shoddy at best given his time under Japanese colonial rule, and his English nonexistent. So, the only explanation for the terrifying-looking jar was a roll-of-the-eyes and shrug from my aunt: "Grandpa said he wanted to try making plum wine, so we're letting him, but given the giant, iridescent mold colony floating on the top, we're not actually going to let him sample it." Since then, the jar has lived in my mind as a cautionary tale against home fermentation experiments. But then I saw your image and I have to ask: is that furry mass of grey and green and purple what's supposed to happen? Is that mold like we thought, or is it actually some kind of "good bug" that's required for fermentation to happen, like the specific strains of bacteria used in different fancy cheese? Was my grandfather's concoction actually edible and the rest of his family simply culinarily ignorant?

    1. I love your grandfather! It sounds like he was fermenting the fruit with just some sugar and water, maybe, and so it sounds like the natural yeasts were forming on top. As long as he scooped them off, he was probably all right! (How long did he live after that?!) BTW, if you infuse ready-made liquor with fruit, you won't get the fuzz on top.