Plum Wine in Tokyo

Spring has taken the hand of Tokyo, and the city is blushing. The plum blossoms have painted the landscape in shades of exuberant pink, and the cherry blossoms are poised to unleash their spectacular iridescence. This month will give you plenty of chances to sit beneath the trees and drink in the beauty of the season, so call your friends and prepare your picnic basket. But don't stop there - sweeten your hanami experience by chasing it with some fruity and floral umeshu.

Often dubbed "plum wine," umeshu is traditionally green plum-steeped shochu or sake, although a number of other bases - including brandy and even wine - are also used. With its sweet, at times saccharine, perfumed character and piercing acidity, umeshu is beloved by even those not fond of alcohol. Once people realized you didn't have to be a middle-aged housewife or a giggling schoolgirl to enjoy it, the tipple really took off. It is tasty, particularly as an apertif or digestif, but it can also work surprisingly well with certain foods.

There are hundreds of varieties of umeshu - some sweeter, some lighter, and some combining other flavors such as shiso. Although the liqueur is typically enjoyed on the rocks, it can also be shaken up or stirred into cocktails, from the staid umeshu sour to the daring umeshu martini. Adding to the myriad of choices, many sake breweries have started to produce their own umezake, made with premium sake. Daishichi's luscious Kimoto Umeshu is a prime example of how amazing plum sake can be when you use the good stuff for your base.

Many drink menus feature one or two umeshu offerings, but, for those looking to branch out, Tokyo provides some great opportunities to explore and experiment.

ZuZu (Shinjuku Kabukicho)
Kabukicho can be a rough n' tumble neighborhood, but the stylish umeshu den ZUZU will take you far from the fray. The smart drink list offers eleven choices of popular umeshu like Saika and Kakutama, plus a few liqueurs based on anzu (apricot), yuzu and even decopon (the orange-tangerine hybrid). Lots of shochu, a short but sweet selection of nihon-shu, and oodles of cocktails give you more reasons to sit and linger, while dainty servings of chazuke - twelve kinds, as a matter of fact - and other small dishes provide delicious distractions from the hectic world outside. Budget around Y3000 for drinks and a light meal. No English spoken. [data]
Butazo (Ikebukuro)
If you find yourself in Ikebukuro with a hankering for umeshu, look no further than Butazo, where giant pig lanterns hover luminously above the main dining space to add a dash of the bizarre to your dinner. Discover eighty kinds of umeshu and almost as many kinds of shochu as you nibble on tasty kushiyaki, miniature nabes and shabu-shabu, in addition to well-prepared izakaya standards. A couple of drinks and some substantial snacks will set you back about Y4000. No English. [data]
Umetsubaki (Harajuku)
Umetsubaki is a pleasant place for novices to get to know plum wine. Serving one hundred kinds of umeshu and shochu, this chilled-out izakaya in Harajuku makes sampling a cinch, particularly for big groups. The drink menu logically organizes the choices according to base alcohol, while the staff will gladly offer recommendations. The diverse food menu features lightly herbed grilled lamb, deep-fried swordfish atop piquant onions, and peanut-tofu Caprese salad, as well as sashimi, tempura, and a few Okinawan favorites. All of the dishes are crafted to complement umeshu. Budget about Y5000 for the full experience. (Other locations include Shinjuku, Roppongi, and Ginza.) [data]
Kutoma (Ikejiri-Ohashi)
Should 100 varieties prove insufficient for your needs, despair not. Behold the ume El Dorado, where up to 250 kinds of umeshu await you: Bar Kutoma. A tiny realm with room for about twenty, benevolently ruled by a soccer-loving umeshu expert, this late-night Ohashi spot offers tasting flights (umeshu kikisake set) for Y1000. Choose on your own or ask the owner to tailor a set to suit your tastes. There's not much in the way of food, but it's got to be the only place in town where a serious umeshu afficionado can get in touch with his masculine side by cheering for Arsenal. After the soccer games, DJs keep the vibe going, and frequent live events keep it real. Between Y2000-3000 should get you a few drinks plus otsumami like olives or pickles. A little English spoken. [data]
If you're looking for a nice bottle to enjoy under the cherry or plum blossoms, choose from fifteen brands at Hasegawa Sakaten in Omotesando Hills (03-5785-0833) or check out Suzuki Mikawa Sake Shop in Akasaka (03-3583-2349). They sell about ten kinds of umeshu, all of which they will graciously allow you to sample for free. Be adventurous and taste the Katana Ume Eau de Vie, a strong and curious plum grappa. Heck, you don't have to wait for spring. Whether out on the town, in the midst of nature, or in the privacy of your own home, any time is a good time for umeshu. Kanpai! [data]
by Melinda Joe
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