British Sloe Gin & Japanese Umeshu

At the 2011 London Boutique Bar Show, I came across a very intriguing product at the Eaux de Vie Saké stand, Shiraume Umeshu. What struck me was how similar in nose and taste it was to Sloe Gin and, when I heard a little about its culture, I knew an article was in the making.

Umeshu is a liqueur made by steeping Umes, commonly known as Chinese Plums or Japanese Apricots, in alcohol (Shochu) and adding sugar to sweeten it. Although using Shochu is the most common alcohol base for Umeshu, some are based on high-strength saké. It is popular in Japan and Korea (Maesil ju), and China and Taiwan (Meijiu). Its origins date from a few centuries ago and it is often made at home, using freshly picked fruit.

Sloe Gin
Sloe Gin is a liqueur that is made by steeping Sloes (the berry of the Blackthorn Bush) in gin and sweetening with sugar or honey. The exact origins of Sloe Gin are unknown, but it is thought to date back to at least the 18th Century. Some suggestions have been made that state that the Sloes and sugar were used to hide the poor taste of the gin of the day or, alternatively, as a possible preservative for the flavour of the sloes.

Sloe Gin making in the UK is full of lore and myths and these include that the best time to pick Sloes is after the first frost of the Autumn/Winter. In the West Country, it is said that any Sloes not picked after the end of September should be left for the fairies.*

Sloes are often pricked before steeping; this is traditionally done with the thorn of sloe bush, but, if a metal implement is used, it must be made of solid silver**.

Tasting Notes

Hayman’s Sloe Gin

This was first launched in April 2010 and use Hayman’s London Dry Gin and English Sloes. It is Victoria Moore’s Sloe Gin of choice in “How To Drink Christmas”. It is bottled at 26% ABV.

Nose: A strong, yet soft initial nose of berry and almond; this is then followed by some dryness.
Taste: A light texture, and very smooth. There are some floral notes as well as the jammy berry ones and a hint of almond. The finish is very dry.

Akashi-Tai’s Shiraume Umeshu

This is made by the Akashi Tai Brewery in Japabn who have been making fine Saké since 1918. Today they also distill Shochu and make a variety of liquers based on both Shochu and Saké. It is made in Akashi-city, Hyogo, Japan and is bottled at 14% ABV.

Nose: Fruity and jammy with hints of plum and peach. There is also a nutty almond note, which is bittersweet in nature. A very little bit of rice wine at the end. Mrs B also got crumbly marzipan on the nose.
Taste: This also had a very smooth texture, with a full mouth-feel. It was slightly sweet to start, and then along came some bitterness. Very jammy, with a berried fruitiness. Some musky graininess, which reminds me of sake.

The main differences I found  between the sloe gin and the sake are: colour (the sake is more yellow, whereas the sloe gin is red) and sweetness: the sake is sweeter and the sloe dryer, but, beyond that, they are quite similar. Both are rich.


#1) Long Pedlar
Originally, this mix of sloe gin and bitter lemon would have used Hawker’s Pedlar Sloe Gin, but, today, it is acceptable to use any variety.

1) Sloe Gin – Quite tart; interestingly, this now tastes quite like the Umeshu does on its own. The sloe gin seems to stand up quite well to the bitter lemon and the jammy, slightly floral notes come through.
2) Umeshu – This was actually quite bitter; the sweetness of the Umeshu seems to have all but disappeared. Not a particularly well-balanced, it just seemed to taste like syrupy lemonade. However, after finishing the glass, I did find the resultant tartness quite refreshing and Mrs. B was rather fond of it in general.

#2) Vale of the Martinez
This was taught to me by Sam Carter at a recent Bombay Sapphire Sloe Gin event, this was easily my favourite drink of the evening.

[50ml Sloe Gin, 25ml Dry vermouth, 10ml Marashino, 2 Dashes Orange Bitters]

1) Sloe Gin – The dry fruity notes of the sloe gin come through as do a hint of flowers quite dry by equally delicious.
2) Umeshu – Brilliant, a lovely clear amber colour, with the perfect balance of sweet and dry and hint of plum and cherry with a orange lift of a finish. This really is superb.

#3) Sloe Gin Sour
A standard sloe gin cocktail and, from my research, also a common way to drink Umeshu. This particular recipe comes from Victoria Moore’s “How to Drink Christmas”.

[50ml Sloe gin, 20ml Lemon Juice, 1tsp of Egg White, Shake & Strain]

1) Sloe Gin – Superb, very refreshing with a great balance between tartness and sweetness.
2) Umeshu – Another good, the jammy sloe gin qualities really come out of the Umeshu in this drink. If tasted blind I would have thought it was Sloe Gin.

#4) Umeshu Tea
This is a Umeshu Cocktail, rather than a Sloe Gin one.

1) Sloe Gin – Quite nice; the herbal, floral fruitiness complements the dryer smokiness of the tea. For some, this might actually be a bit too sweet, but the sloe flavour does come through well.
2) Umeshu – The slightly smoky tannins of the tea work well with herbal and slightly fruity, sweet notes of the Umushu. This is a nice alternative to a toddy. Lovely.

In Conclusion

Although the flavours of Sloe Gin and Umeshu do differ,*** there are a lot of characteristics that are common: the sweet fruity jamminess, the hint of nutty almond, the level of sweetness with a bit of bite, and the fact that, although there are commercial products available, it is a popular drink to make at home. The fact that these two drinks evolved on other-sides of the world to forfill similar cultural positions is somewhat amazing.


There are other varities of Sloe Gin availaible in other European countries, such as:
ITALY – Bargnolino (bottled at 40-45%ABV, base alcohol varies)
GERMANY – Schlehenfeuer (Sloe Fire)
SPAIN – Pacharán  – This uses an anis-flavoured spirit rather than gin.

Mrs B. and I smell experience the intriguing Bombay Sapphire Sloe Gin cocktail

I also had the opportunity to go to the Blue room at Bombay Sapphire in London for a Sloe Gin event earlier this week. In addition to trying some top notch cocktails we were shown how to make Sloe Gin in 3 hours, using a vacuum sealed bag and a heated (to 56 0c) water bath. If that wasn’t enough we got to try some re-distilled sloe gin, that was clear, one of the best tipples I have had in a long time.

* This creates something of an issue this year, as the first frost didn’t come until well into November.
** There is acidity in the Sloe Berries and this may react with other metals, tainting the flavour of the sloe gin.
*** Some more than others, I thought that M&S/Boudier Sloe Gin was more similar to the Umeshu than the Hayman’s