Johnnie Walker Blue Label And Chef Kei Kobayashi Of 3-Starred Restaurant Kei Bring Elusive Umami To Life

“When we were asked by our colleagues to think about how we could approach Scotch whisky in partnership with chef Kobayashi, we went to Paris and sought a deeper understanding on how he creates his menu,” says Emma Walker, the first female master blender for the two-century-old Johnnie Walker. In the City of Light where Kobayashi’s eponymous restaurant Kei earned its three Michelin stars in 2020, Walker and her team were captivated by Kobayashi’s stories of his formative years which led to his understanding of umami. Through a translator, the enigmatic Kobayashi reveals: “Umami, when translated, means delicious taste. And for me, the Elusive Umami project was a chance to create – from scratch – the meaning of umami in Johnnie Walker Blue Label.”

This partnership and journey would lead Walker to walk in the imagined footsteps of Kobayashi as he searches for inspiration and ingredients in his native Japan and adopted France. “Kobayashi spoke about walking in the forest in the mornings, moving through morning dew, the damp earth and moss, before the sunshine seeps in releasing earthy petrichor and the smell of rain,” Walker says of Kobayashi’s evocative retelling. “And then you start seeing the notes come through the trees, a sweetness which comes from wood and smoke, before splashes of sea brine and white pepper spice.”

At the recent Asian launch of Elusive Umami, the progression and journey into the heart of this limited edition Johnnie Walker Blue Label took place at Singapore’s Raffles City for a select group of guests from all across the continent. As the night progressed, guests were swept through the elements of wind, water and earth which contribute greatly to the planes on which Elusive Umami exists – in which the sum becomes much greater than the parts. Or, in the words of Kobayashi: “a whisky for the world.”

Chef Kobayashi in his element.

To kick off, Kobayashi prepared two dishes in which one could sample the food and relate it to the whisky. The first, a buckwheat waffle with Kaviari ‘Kristal’ caviar was paired with a delicious sour cream and Scottish salmon sauce to embody the fullness of flavour from the sea.  The combination of warm waffles and cool cream then elicits more flavours from the sip of Elusive Umami whisky, even as the marine essences and smoky caviar swirl around the mouth.

This then segues to a hay-smoked lobster with a shiitake mushroom, sauce homardine and mild chilli condiments. As the sweet, savoury and iodic notes begin to manifest on the palate, the Elusive Whisky swoops in, to round off the flavours with an incredible symphony of depth. Walker deconstructs it as rich, meaty flavours from the component single malts such as Mortlach and Benrinnes “a depth and waves of flavours”, before the Talisker’s sea spray and ocean minerals come to the fore. “Our conversations with the chef also made us realise that umami can come from the earth and that is where the aged grains of Port Dundas and Cameronbridge allow for the luscious, fruity sweetness – almost like a meat reduction with berries, pepper, salt, a hint of chilli finally gives way to chocolate – and that helps you to carry on and carry on.”

Johnnie Walker’s Master Blender Emma Walker and Chef Kei Kobayashi.

Reflecting on the effort and scarcity of whisky stocks (only one in 25,000 casks were adjudged to contain the right profile) which were recruited to make Elusive Umami, Walker speaks of her pride in producing a whisky which bears so much characterisation with fine gastronomy. “We know it’s the same malts but the nose leads to completely different aromas, giving you a fragrant Scotch that evolves from the first 10 minutes to the next 10.”

For Walker, the Elusive Umami is very much an invitation to savour its unique profile where the 12 whisky makers of Johnnie Walker experienced the joys of finding new nuances in existing single malt components. “We’ve used up some of the last expressions of whiskies from our stocks, in our continuing quest to innovate this Elusive Umami expression.”

To savour it, Walker recommends taking the gastronome’s approach. “We want you to think about the touch when you pick up the glass,” she says. Then a pour from the bottle of Elusive Umami, which bears a bold orange brushstroke reminiscent of Kobayashi’s own plating techniques. Beyond that, the tactility extends to the popping of its cork. “And then you swirl the liquids – that’s the invitation,” Walker asserts.

As for Kobayashi, his coup de grace of the evening arrives as, ‘chocolate presented in a way like never before.’ His semi-melting chocolate tart arrives and is accented with a spray of Blue Label Elusive Umami. “It is chocolate that you are not able to buy from the chocolatier or store,” he says with his trademark gravity. “It is that I want to present to you.”

Johnnie Walker

Photography: Johnnie Walker Blue Label

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