Get out the salt and pop open the white liqueur — the season for ume is upon us. The diminutive Prunus mume — referred to erroneously as a plum but technically an apricot — has hit the shelves and is available in its preferred unripe form for the next month and a half. Farmers growing these apricots take extra precautions — the fruit notoriously falls from the trees while still unripe, especially when disturbed by seasonal rains, lending its name to stormy July weather, tsuyu ("plum rain").

Japanese employ two major traditional methods of dealing with ume: brewing (umeshu) and pickling (umeboshi).

Seasonally, umeshu comes first. You must use the hardest unripe bright-green fruit for the process. Families all over the country sit down to wash and destem the ume before pricking dozens of little holes in the skin to expose the meat to the alcohol in which they will steep the fruit. Macerated with rock sugar in the mysterious white liqueur, the apricots are left to imbue their flavor for several months. White liqueur is actually a very potent (usually 70 proof or higher) shochu, a distilled spirit made from rice, wheat, potatoes or a combination thereof. Drinkers imbibe umeshu, mostly over ice in the summer, as a tonic to improve blood circulation and soothe sore throats. Many commercially available variations are sticky, sweet and unpleasant, but a trend toward using better alcohol and less sugar has laypeople producing some very good product.