Johnnie Walker continues to crank out special editions of its Blue Label bottlings, and this latest is its most enigmatic. Elusive Umami is a collaboration between Johnnie Walker master blender Emma Walker and Japanese chef Kei Kobayashi, a whisky designed to explore the enigma of “umami,” the long-heralded “fifth taste.”
It isn’t made by dumping soy sauce into the barrel or finishing in mizunara — nothing like that. Frankly, it’s just a barrel pick: Walker says that “only 1 in 25,000 casks made the cut in the search for the elusive flavor profile” they were going for here. I’m not sure that hundred of thousands of casks were sampled to create Elusive Umami, but what the hell do I know about it? I’m here to taste the whisky and tell you whether it fits the bill or not. So let’s get going.
The evocation of “umami” in the name of the whisky puts a heavy level of suggestion into the drinker’s mind — and it takes some doing to try to push it out of your head and experience the whisky for what’s inside the glass.
Once the drinker is dropped appropriately into zen mode, the nose does indeed evoke a savory, almost beefy quality with an edge of sauteed mushrooms in the mix. The underlying brightness of Blue Label is still represented, offering a doughy, biscuity aroma dusted with light notes of sesame seed, lemon peel, and a touch of tobacco leaf. It’s only moderately more savory — nothing too intense, but noticeable — on the nose that you’d otherwise expect from Blue Label, and the same goes for the palate. Here we jump to a restrained but enjoyable experience that melds vanilla and walnut oil notes with layers of cut grass, toasted wood, and a pinch of white pepper. Touches of smoke ring the edges of the whisky, again evoking a gentle but engaging mushroom note, dribbled with soy. The finish isn’t long, but it feels cohesive and balanced, inviting continued exploration. I found it hard to put down, to be honest.
The various incarnations of Blue Label are never unenjoyable, but they can often be straightforward. Here that Elusive Umami — a more appropriate name than I thought at first — showcases ample complexity that proves that the House of Walker has plenty of additional tricks up its sleeve. One of my favorite expressions from the Blue Label special editions to date.