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Postcards from Japan: The beauty of plum wine and Japanese heritage, with Risa Iwashita of Umeshuya London

Risa Iwashita of Umeshuya London on a traditional Japanese bridge in Shimoda, Izu

Whether it's the famous styles of cuisine like sushi and ramen, or lesser known delights like menchi-katsu and o-den, there's a reason why food is what brings a lot of people to Japan - but what about drink? Sake is maybe the best known, but did you know that the humble plum forms the base of one of Japan's other most enjoyed beverages? Never far from an izakaya menu, umeshu, or plum wine/liqueur is a popular alcoholic drink which will have anyone with a sweet tooth addicted after one glass and wondering where they can buy some in the UK! But there is a world of variety and cultural significance behind this drink, something Risa Iwashita from Umeshuya London was happy to tell us all about!

Hi Risa, thank you for agreeing to have a chat with us. Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Thank you for considering interviewing me. I am originally from Tokyo, Japan and first came to the UK when I was a teenager with my family. After graduating from university in London, I went back to Tokyo for my first job in a big cosmetic corporation, left to come back to London after three years. In total, I have now lived in London longer than in Tokyo and both places are my home dear to my heart. I am passionate about connecting the two.

A line-up of various types of plum wine

How did you come to work and be interested in umeshu plum wine?
I’ve become the company director at Hishinuma Trading in the UK since October last year. Before then all my career was in fashion and luxury brands, almost always taking goods and brands to Japan. After many years of doing this, I realised that there are so many great products and brands that people outside of Japan will love. So I wanted to do the opposite of what I have been doing for all my career and bring stuff from Japan to the UK. Lockdown during Covid gave me a moment for self-reflection and I fell into a different path. 

The founder of Hishinuma Trading, Ichiro-san is passionate about supporting independent regional businesses from all over Japan where the economy has been stalled for a long time. Some data shows that in contrast to decreasing birth rate each year, the elderly population of over 60s could increase to more than 30% of the entire population in Japan by 2060, potentially shrinking the market strength. Part of our company’s passion is to support these businesses to expand outside of the country, so that Japan’s heritage, craftsmanship, culture and legacy will thrive for years to come. Umeshuya’s business is one that had already launched when I joined.

A traditional 'sakagura' sake brewery in Japan

How was it that Umeshuya came about?
Umeshuya is a liquor store based in Osaka. Originally, the store started selling Japanese sake. Then the current owner and grandson of the founder decided to launch a separate store specialising in umeshu, yuzushu and other fruit liqueurs in 2005. 

Umeshuya collaborates with traditional sake breweries all over Japan to develop our own unique blends of umeshsu and yuzushu, using the finest locally sourced ingredients and hand-made methods. These passionate brewers produce our unique collection in limited quantity small batch runs exclusively for us every year.

The majority of our bottle designs are also exclusively designed, caring not only the taste but also the visual aesthetics so customers enjoy the time spent when drinking our sake.

A bottle of umeshu plum wine

What is it about Japanese ume plums that makes them so special? How can they be eaten?
In Japanese food history, ‘ume’ plays a significant, symbolic role. The most famous produce from the fruit is ‘umeboshi’, a pickled plum and it is said to appear in writing dating back to the Heian era of 9-10th century. There are also historical records of umeboshi being used for medicinal reasons to nurture the body with its mineral rich and alkaline components.

Umeshu is a simple art of blending alcohol, ume and sugar, similar to English sloe gin. Japanese have enjoyed making this at home using white liquor or shochu, while traditional breweries we work with use their own special sake that they have been producing for centuries. Each blend recipe makes the liqueur’s outcome different to another, giving them all a unique flavour. 

The process of attaching traditionally designed labels to umeshu bottles

What’s your favourite type of umeshu plum wine?
There are so many variations, I cannot choose. But I love the ones where you can taste the fruits - not only umeshu, we have other fruits-based liqueurs like yuzu citrus, strawberry, peach and grape, too.

Over Christmas, I was hooked on ‘Premium Ginger Yuzu’. It has yuzu mixed with spicy ginger scent akin to gingerbread, delicious on the rocks!

My favourite bottle designs are the gorgeous ‘Torotoro No Umeshu’ based on Hanafuda - old Japanese playing cards, and ‘Mukashihanashi Teshibori Yuzushu’ with hand-pressed yuzu juice. The bottle design illustrates a scene from a 17th century folk tale of a tiny inch boy, who never grew bigger than one inch! The label is from a woodblock print maker from Kyoto dating back to 1891.

Plums in a jar of spirit, slowly turning into umeshu

Are there any other ways to enjoy umeshu? (eg. in cooking etc)
I tried a little adventure over the Christmas break and used umeshu as a glaze for a roast ham recipe, by simmering it with sugar to make a syrup.

Our ‘Shio Lychee’ is a liqueur mixed with Lychee - it tastes of fresh fruits and is really very delicious on its own. Try mixing with fresh pineapple and coconut milk, blitzing all together and then freeze it to make a refreshing sorbet. Delicious!

I would love to explore taste-pairing with chefs, pâtissier and professional cooks, to see how they’d use umeshu. For example, to come up with a sauce paired with duck? Making desserts like sorbet, mousse or cakes, etc. Anybody who would like to try the challenge please let me know!

One thing I’m interested in trying over this summer is to pour umeshu over ‘kakigōri’ - the famous Japanese shaving ice! This always reminds me of the summer in Japan.

Risa showcasing yuzu-infused plum wine in a UK store

Where can we get our hands on some of the delicious offerings from Umeshuya London?
At the moment, we only have an online store, umeshuya.co.uk where you can see around 30 of our flavours available in the UK. We would love to have a physical store one day with a tasting bar inside!

We also have a handful of partners who stock or serve a few selections from us -

Hedonism Wine
Katsute 100
Nobu London
Notting Hill Fish Shop
The Wasabi Company
Tokyo Sukiyaki Tei

Thank you for your time! We've definitely learned a lot more about Japanese umeshu plum wine, and where we can buy it in the UK. Check out the Umeshuya London site here.


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