Bottom Line at the Top: we found Vicomte to be one of the lightest-bodied, easiest-drinking whiskies on the market. We found strong notes of apple (some thought cotton candy), along with other fruit, to go with that airy lightness. We feel if Vicomte aimed to achieve a very approachable, non-threatening whisky, then they largely succeeded. People looking for single barrel bourbon and cask strength scotch (and certainly peat-ridden Islay scotch) will be disappointed. More plainly, f you like to have single combat with your whisky or that every sip is a specific commitment requiring concentration and resilience, you won’t find that level of fight with the French version. But for drinkability, gentleness, and a merciful conduct on its way to your liver, this gets high marks. We think a cask-strength version, or at least a much higher-proof version, would improve this whisky dramatically.
So who would buy a French single malt? That’s the first question. Because when people hear “single malt whisky” they think of scotch. And why shouldn’t they? If you squint at the Scotch Whisky Association’s numbers, you can get to something like 22 million gallons of ”the creature” exported to the US. If you take a stiff drink of whisky and then turn a squinting eye at the federal Tax and Trade Bureau’s statistics, then you can see that they declare the US imported 21.6 million gallons of “bottled imports” attributable to “imported whisky.” There are footnotes, definitions, mathematical conversions, and a lot of confusion about how they’re classifying things in general (not to mention they’re two different government agencies that care only about counting gallons as it tracks towards taxable revenue). So we freely admit this kind of back-of-the-envelope math is fishy. Still: you don’t need to be accountants, data geeks, or pristine mathematicians to see the trend. Even some fantasy football flunkie can look at those two figures and see it: scotch whisky totally dominates the imported whisky market. (Btw, the TTB notes that the US produced about 80 million gallons of whisky so that puts about 1 out of every 5 gallons of whisky as imported scotch whisky… or something like that if we’re squinting at these governmental numbers correctly.)
You really didn’t need anybody to tell you scotch whisky dominates the market if you’ve ever looked at a shelf of booze at the liquor store: look at all the scotch and then try and find anything else from anywhere else that says “single malt.” They exist; but they’re scarce. And you’ve probably never heard of them.
Sure, even casual whisky drinkers know that not all scotch is single malt. But our point here is that we’re staring at a bottle of French Single Malt whisky and one has to come back to our original question and wonder: why would we want French single malt when we can get Scottish single malt scotch? Here are a couple of reasons we came up with:
- The French are damned good at that brandy thing… maybe their barley is as good as their wine grapes;
- The thing is aged 8 years instead of 12, 15, 18, 25 or some other exotic amount of time… maybe it’s lighter, cleaner, and less oaky;
- It’s a bit cheaper too! The good single malts are $60-$80 and this one’s only $40;
- Maybe we’re sick and tired of that smoke-ridden, chimney sweeping, peat-reek that comes boiling out of many single malt scotch bottles;
- It’s finished in cognac barrels—and the French are good at cognac!—so maybe that’ll make the whisky taste better; or
- I’m a member of the French nobility so the name “vicomte” appeals to me greatly.
Maybe you could have come up with other reasons if someone confronted you with some French single malt whisky but this is what we’re looking for: something that can compete with scotch on taste but lacks smoky peat and exhibits an unusual cognac character all for less money than a decent scotch. That’s a list of demands enough to make the Once-ler himself (thank you, Dr. Seuss) blush. But let’s do it.
We’re going to compare the Vicomte to a couple of different malt whiskies. First, a famous blend in Buchanan’s 18yr. This is an award-winning scotch aged for more than twice as long and comes in at near twice the price. But being a blend it should have a gentle, smooth taste that we want the similarly mild, 80-proof Vicomte to match. Second, we’ll compare to the Dalwhinnie 15yr. This is another recognized single-malt that’s long-aged but backs off on the peat-reek… another point of emphasis we want the Vicomte to match. Eschewing the smoke entirely, we compare it to the Redbreast 12yr, that is a bit on the younger side and also bottled at 80 proof. Finally, we’ll compare to an American malt in the Corsair Triple Smoke. This is a single malt smoked in a variety of different woods that we want to see the Vicomte’s Cognac finish overcome.
Vicomte vs Buchanan’s 18yr
The Buchanan’s smells of oak and very light peat. There are wisps of honey and perhaps a tincture of salt-iodine. Neat, there’s a sweet, meadow-honey on the entry and then a warm smoke on the edges. The finish warms a bit verging on burning. This scotch is all parlor, red-velvet covered wooden furniture, and warm fires in the evening. A splash of water opens up the smoke a bit more as well as accentuates the salt (God we hope there’s a little Islay in the blend for the sake of our palate’s reputation). The water evens out the burn, naturally, but the scotch retains all the oakiness and carries none of the fruit-notes we find in younger blends. It’s a sophisticated scotch for greybeards and connoisseurs.
Moving to the Vicomte, we find no smoke in the nose. None. Fine, we expected that! Instead there’s a candy-berry aroma on the nose perhaps colored by a bit of that cognac. We’d have almost called it a candied rum on scnet alone. Tasting, it’s much lighter-bodied. The candy sweetness is there with a bit of a faded charry bitterness on the finish that we tend to associate with bourbon and speaks to the aging. The sweetness turns to a kind of kiddie vitamin sort of flavor. (We’ve never had cognac taste like that.) A splash of water (into this already mild, 80 proof whisky) turns the candied aroma into more something like apple or apple cider. Tasting, we’d have almost guessed this was a watered down calvados. We have to proclaim that it doesn’t stand up well to water.
Declaration: we judge the Buchanan’s to be the better executed spirit though if you don’t like the smoke (or salt), then you’ll prefer the Vicomte. It makes us wish that there were a cask-strength Vicomte because we’re wondering about the bottling proof and intensity… it’s almost too light as if the whisky is a pale shadow of itself. Hard to imagine it standing up to any robust scotch.
Vicomte vs Dalwhinnie 15yr
So let’s try another robust scotch! Hardly robust, though, Dalwhinnie calls itself “the gentle spirit.” On the nose, we’re getting about the same amount of smoke as the Buchanan’s but also a strong note of honey. Also a bit of apple and fig… those are the fruit notes we recognize from younger (and often Sepyside originating) scotch. On the taste the front end is all honey, easily putting honey flavored spirits to shame. Unlike the burn on the 86 proof Buchanan’s, this 86 proof single malt is nothing but a gentle warming all the way down. No char on the finish, the apple/honey lingers long after the swallow. It’s a beautifully executed spirit. A little splash of water brings out the fruit and introduces a tiny counter melody of vanilla. That water makes it what the label claims: gentle. But it’s not a wimpy gentle… more of a masseuse gentle: firm, convicted, but comforting. This is indeed a scotch for the spa during an interlude of sessions.
For all that gentleness there still carries a bit of peat smoke that the Vicomte lacks and that’s repeated here in the second comparison. After smelling the honey in the Dalwhinnie, it’s all apple on the Vicomte. After describing the gentleness of the Dalwhinnie, we’re realizing now how lightly bodied the Vicomte is. Without daring to splash water in it, the Vicomte is ethereal where the Dalwhinnie is gentle. It evaporates off the tongue almost as if swallowing is a needless and anachronistic tradition! Interestingly, where we we prefer the Dalwhinnie to the Buchanan’s… in direct comparison, we like the Vicomte better than the Dalwhinnie! No, that doesn’t make much sense but there it is.
Declaration: in a setting of gentle spirit vs gentle spirit, we have to give the nod to the Vicomte, particularly if you want to sip neat. And most especially since the Vicomte is a third less in price. Both whiskies are lovely but the lighter, fairylike Vicomte is going to be more appealing to those who are turning their backs on the tempestuous and smoky highlands or the salt-sprayed shores of the Islands. It might just be a revelation to those who want to know what barley is absent the smoke.
Vicomte vs Redbreast 12yr
So let’s turn our backs on smoke altogether and move to the Redbreast 12yr. This is not a single malt but rather a “pure pot still” whiskey. This means it’s a blend of malted and umalted barley. No smoke! More importantly, Redbreast got its name and reputation by being partially aged in Spanish sherry casks, which impart a red color to the whiskey. Please compare with the cognac finish of the Vicomte!
For the Redbreast, on the nose there’s an absence of smoke, as we expect, and the scent more closely resembles the Vicomte. In the light, we have to say it doesn’t look particularly red, which bums us out. Seeking for it, we think one can find a hint of sherry in the nose… it starts out as the apple we’ve been smelling all night but evolves into something more complex: a fino sherry. The texture is oily on the mouth… it seeps around the tongue. It’s sweet and delightful on the entry with honey and vanilla on the finish. If there’s a burn, you’ve already swallowed and yearning for more before it hits. At a full 86 proof it’s as easy to drink as lemonade or soda pop. The finish, if you can stand not to throw back another shot, carries a bit of complex char that finally wakes you up to the fact that you’re drinking alcohol. This is a hard drinker’s drink: something you call for and seek out at the bar on a business trip the night before the meeting because it’s a ferocious kind of whiskey instead of a celebratory one. It’s definitely a whiskey that eschews cigars in favor of more romantic flavors… say lipstick and cologne. (We grudgingly put a bit of water in, even though it doesn’t need it, and honey exploded out of the nose. As if the thing needed to be more dangerously drinkable!)
Romance? Lipstick? Cologne? This is indeed the realm of the French! If Vicomte could be said to go mano-a-mano with any whisky on earth, it should be this Irish idea of romance and boudoir! Having reset our taste expectations to the Redbreast, the nose on the Vicomte now as more cherry than apple but definitely absent that honey aroma that we saw in Redbreast. It’s also, by the way, slightly more red than the Redbreast so they definitely win on that score. But apple cider still is present and almost makes us reach for cinnamon at this point. Tasting, we’re now looking for the same easy drinkability. The fairylike, ethereality of the spirit is better than the oily texture of the Redbreast. But the bitterness on the finish—that flickering little bitterness almost like the evil jealousy in the otherwise honorable Tinkerbell—comes out. It creates a second thought in reaching for the second drink instead of the quick thoughtless reach that came with the Redbreast. With water, it’s just too light. We find ourselves again yearning for a cask strength version!
Declaration: for such an idolized whiskey, we find that the Vicomte competes with the Redbreast right to the closing seconds of the match and maybe even pushes it to overtime. But in the end, we look for the Redbreast on the shelf and would settle for the Vicomte.
Vicomte vs Corsair Triple Smoke
Now, O Frenchman, "you must answer to… America! F*** yeah!" Corsair Triple Smoke is a single malt that does what America does: takes a tradition, recklessly and callously works that tradition over with any of a hundred innovations/perversions, and then finally ends up with something better. It is smoked in a combination of peat, cherry, and beechwood… if smoke can be said to improve single malt, this should be the test.
The Corsair nose is totally different. The smoke is there but it’s not the peaty smoke from the scotch whisky. It’s more of a barbeque smoke. The taste is astonishing. Sweet on the front, caramel and vanilla on the edges, smoke on the finish. The aroma is like a campfire, the taste is like a whiskey, but the finish is like a liqueur. What just happened here? There is no burn on the finish, no char… nothing but sweetness and barley. It’s remarkable. At 86 proof it tastes smoother than the watered down 80 proof Vicomte. The finish is longer-lasting than even the Dalwhinnie. At $50 suggested retail, it’s the closest in price to the $40 Vicomte. Not wanting to, we dared a little water. That provoked a little apple and fruit out of the smoky aroma… so now we’re barbequing at some kind of apple smoked pork festival or some such madness. The water also managed to create a bit of ethereality. This is a remarkable spirit. This whiskey screams boisterous and large family reunion at the end of the night when the small coterie of like-minded cousins convene secretly in a secluded place to discuss family fortunes, heirlooms, and drink this particular whiskey which they preserved from the rest of the family rabble.
What now, Vicomte? What can you do against that? Resetting our palatable expectations once again, we enter the Vicomte… and it competes a little better than we would’ve expected. The Vicomte, like a chameleon, seems able to adapt itself to the sensibilities of different whiskies and meet them on their terms. The honey is there now… plus an unexpected hint of backbone. But there’s no smoke and there’s still a bitter fade. Drinking Vicomte unwittingly, it’s almost as if the Corsiar went “off” a bit. Just a bit, but there if you’re paying attention. It definitely tastes fruitier and sweeter on the front end. Without a doubt, it lacks the punch of smoke on the nose on the way in. We have to say again: it’s lighter! The sheer weightlessness of this spirit is perhaps its very best feature.
Declaration: victory to America if not the slam dunk we might’ve expected. If you’re looking for an unusual departure from traditional scotch whisky fare, then the Corsair is the better, more adventurous choice.
by Neal MacDonald, editor
[Disclaimer: we received a 750ml bottle of Vicomte free of charge for review purposes… all other products mentioned here were acquired at our own expense.]
[Additional Disclaimer: we used the term “whiskey” and “whisky” throughout this article in deference to the producer’s preferences (whisky for the international stuff and whiskey for the bourbon)… so they weren’t spelling errors and we’re not deaf to the debate. We’re just not taking sides.