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Michelin-starred chef Kei Kobayashi and blended scotch whisky brand Johnnie Walker have collaborated on a new Blue Label release called Elusive Umami. We had a chance to talk to the chef and Johnnie Walker master blender Emma Walker about the new release, the importance of aroma, and how the name of this whisky could cause some confusion.
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Kobayashi is the owner of the restaurant Kei in Paris, which earned three Michelin stars in 2020 making him the first Japanese chef to achieve that honor in the City of Light. Robb Report spoke to him over Zoom (with the help of a translator) about this new whisky collaboration and the inspiration behind it. “I feel like there’s a slight misunderstanding of this concept,” he said. “Umami is two words—the word ‘delicious’ and the word ‘taste,’ so it literally means ‘delicious taste.’ I wanted to focus on creating something delicious, not so much umami as a fifth flavor.”
In other words, don’t expect the intensely salty, savory notes you probably associate with anything labeled “umami.” Official tasting notes describe a combination of sweet and savory on the palate along with a bit of smoke and fruit, and a nose full of nutty, salty brine. The nose is of particular importance to Kobayashi, who puts fragrance front and center in his cooking. “As a chef, we have to stimulate all five senses,” he said. “But taste comes last. First is vision and second is aroma. Since whisky combines fragrance with taste, which is my speciality, I focused on how we can have those two elements coexist and make the perfect harmony.” He felt that a blended scotch, rather than a single malt, provided the best opportunity to do this.
Of course, Emma Walker, the first female master blender for Johnnie Walker in the brand’s two centuries of existence, had a huge role in creating the whisky as well. “A wonderful part of the collaboration was Chef Kobayashi explaining exactly what umami means to him, when he’s creating a dish and layering flavors and the full sensorial experience,” she said. “When we started thinking about Elusive Umami, we thought about the distilleries we would use—some Talisker for smoke and a little salinity, Mortlach and Benrinnes to get some of those rich and savory notes, some lovely aged grain whiskies from Port Dundas and Cameronbridge. We went to Paris with the heart of the blend, but taking other components to build it further in person.”
The recommended pairing for the whisky is a neat pour to pair with caviar, specifically sturgeon caviar, to match the umami (conceptually or literally) flavor of the scotch. Johnnie Walker Blue Label Elusive Umami is available starting today at Johnnie Walker Princes Street in Edinburgh (SRP $370), and will be available for presale globally beginning on October 2. In the meantime, you can peruse the rest of the Johnnie Walker collection at websites like ReserveBar.
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