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Selling Ice To An Eskimo: How Choya Turned A Homemade Liqueur Into A Global Phenomenon


When you think Umeshu, you're almost always going to think Choya, and that's not surprising - it's pretty much the most dominant player in a market for a drink that's largely homemade. 


Ume fruits, which contrary to popular intuition, are not the same as plums.


Umeshu is a Japanese liqueur made by soaking ume fruit in liquor and sugar. It's popularly made in many Japanese homes and restaurants and comes from a tradition that carries as far back at the 17th century, having started out as a soothing drink for sorethroat.

And no, ume fruits are not plums! While they come from the same family, ume has higher acidity from the higher amounts of organic acids, amino acids and antioxidants found in the Japanese fruit.


Umeshu-making has been a tradition in many Japanese homes and restaurants for centuries. (Image Source: Just One Cookbook)


So how did Choya get so big? The company was originally in the wine business in 1914, having been started by Sumitaro Kondo. However after the war, the company found it incredibly difficult to be in the wine business - there was pretty much no demand. An eye-opening trip to France proved even more daunting - French wines, some of the most popular then, was priced 80% lower than Choya's own wines.

While at the time the Japanese market was not opened to alcohol imports, Choya's founder, Sumitaro, had figured that it was only a matter of time, and when it did eventually happen, Choya would find it incredibly difficult to compete. 


Many of Choya's expressions contain real ume fruit, which to some folks' surprise is also edible.


This prompted Choya to give their business an overhaul and focus on something that was already popular in Japan. And no, umeshu was not even the immediate pick! The company like many others, thought to get into sakes and shochu. As you might expect, they faced much competition. 

Finally, the company decided in 1959 to get into umeshu proper. Producing umeshu held several advantages - firstly, there wasn't much competition given that it was perceived as an unattractive business as it was widely homemade, and then there's also the fact that ume fruit grows well in Japan's four seasons, and last but not least, it was a drink that was already well-understood and enjoyed across Japan.

So how does Choya basically sell ice to an eskimo and get folks who already make it at home to get in on their umeshus?


Choya is a popular drink both at home and paired with food in Japan.


A big focus on quality. For starters, the company prides itself on using actual ume fruit that's grown semi-organically and with no artificial additives. Choya has been able to have their pick of how the ume fruits they use are grown given their sheer size - for obvious reasons, they are Japan's single largest buyer of ume. Choya focuses on using only a few varieties of Japanese ume, specifically the Nanko-ume from Wakayama, which has plump flesh and high acidity.

They also infuse a higher proportion of ume to their liqueur, while minimising the amount of sugar used - which is not an easy feat as ume fruits contain high amounts of natural acid which can be harsh to the palate especially at elevated ume proportions used.

Since umeshu's recipe doesn't dictate what type of liquor is required for use, Choya has changed up their formula every so often, having first used koshu, a type of aged sake, and then later moving on to various types of shochu, and currently using a cane spirit as its base. There's even a higher end Choya that uses French brandy as its spirit.


Choya comes in so many forms!


With liqueurs being relatively free from conventions or restrictions, Choya has ventured quite creatively into a whole range of styles of umeshus that form a huge lineup for the brand.

While many Japanese households and restaurants continue to practice the tradition of making their own umeshy, Choya has become almost synonymous with the umeshu drink. Its popularity has been underpinned but its consistently high quality umeshus, the ease of finding a bottle, as well as its creative line-up of various umeshu expressions. Today, Choya is not just beloved across Japan, but has brought umeshu appreciation to the world. 

Let's try some now!

The Choya Single Year - Review


Today we'll give Choya's Single Year expression a taste test.

The expression has been made of various batches of aged umeshus that have been blended together - specifically at least three different ume liqueurs, which were matured for between one and two years before being married together.

Sugar cane spirit is used as the base spirit here alongside Nanko umes, which Choya is particularly proud of.


Tasting Notes

Color: Honey

Aroma: It starts with a rich natural honeyed sweetness that grows more green and tart. There’s an orchard freshness about its aromas. It has a distinct note of hawthorn flakes (quite popular in Asia). A very light orange zest, as well as notes of gummy candy - almost chewy.  

Taste: A deep mellow autumnal sweetness - honey, cane sugar, with a touch of green tartness and candied orange or ripe mandarines. That same distinctive note of hawthorn flakes. Finally a touch of rich florals and nectar - plumerias and lilies.

It's a fairly good balance of sweet and tart notes, leaning a touch towards the sweet side as it transitions from sweet to tart across the palate. Versus the aromas, it's deeper and richer here. 

Finish: It gets brighter and more green here, the sourness peaks before it fades out into a mellow, comforting herbal honey warmth with a black sugar afterglow.


My Thoughts

This is really rich, replete with both a mellow but luscious sweetness juxtaposed with a tart sourness that gives it alot of depth and balance. It's rounded and silky - almost honeyed in texture - with a great inviting aroma, a flavorful yet easy palate, and leaves with a slight puckering sensation.

It might be a surprise to some, but the ume fruit that comes with the umeshu is actually edible and in this expression, tastes tart and lightly sweet - an intensified embodiment of the umeshu itself. The texture is slightly rough and raisin-like - think drying grapes, which works great as a palate cleanser mid-meal.

This went very well in a Highball as well, when soda was added, bringing out even more of the fruitiness, but cutting down on the sweetness - refreshing stuff. Those who find it too concentrated should definitely give the Highball method a go. 

I should add that this went well with food too, which I had with the Highball, both at an Italian dinner with steak and pasta, as well as at a Yakiniku with grilled beef.