Phylloxera: The Bug that Saved the Whisky Industry

Looking at the worldwide popularity of whisky these days, few whisky drinkers would guess that the contents of their glass might have been very different, had it not been for the interference of a tiny insect native to North America. 1mm long,  0.5mm wide, and listening to the name of daktulosphaira vitifoliae, this bug does not sound like much of a superhero. Yet it played a huge role in popularising whisky, at a time when the industry’s future looked far from bright.

During the Victorian era, the UK spirit market was a very stratified place. As a general rule of thumb, the working classes drank gin, while Britain’s high society enjoyed brandy. Towns with a strong naval tradition would typically drink rum, leaving whisky to fight an uphill battle, particularly outside of Scotland. Yet help arrived from a very unexpected corner, in the form of a tiny unassuming aphid called Phylloxera.

It is well known that the French have always had a love for wine. So when French colonists went to settle in the New World, they naturally brought their grapevines with them. Yet they quickly found out that European strains simply would not thrive in America, as the plants invariably withered and died. Desperate for a taste of their national drink, they turned instead to grapevines native to North America, which did bear fruit. Such became the popularity of these New World wines that the reverse process became a reality: North American grapevines being imported into Europe. While this development had been going on for some years previously, Phylloxera was not introduced to France until around 1860. Some argue that the advent of steamships was a major factor in allowing the Phylloxera aphid to survive the voyage across the Atlantic, as it greatly reduced the journey time.

Either way, in the early 1860s, French vineyard owners started noticing some of their vines dying, for reasons little understood at the time. Yet within a few years, it became clear that a serious new problem was ravaging the vineyards of southern France. The culprit was of course Phylloxera. When feeding on the roots of grapevines, the Phylloxera aphid secretes a poison that damages the root system. Over time, growth of the vine becomes stunted and it will eventually wither and die. While North American strains developed a resistance to this pest, European varieties decidedly did not. Although the problem was identified at last, a solution took even longer to materialise.


Phylloxera eggs on a grapevine’s roots

With the epidemic initially confined to France’s southern départements, Phylloxera was not given much national attention. It was not until 1870 that the French government became sufficiently concerned to establish a research commission and offer a reward to whoever found a cure. In the meantime, sheer desperation gripped vineyard owners further south. All but powerless in the face of such destruction, farmers employed the strangest methods to deal with the outbreak. These included burying a live toad under each vine, spraying fields with urine, irrigating with holy water from Lourdes, and even hiring marching bands to drum the aphids from their subterranean hideouts.  While several chemical treatments met with some success, they could not prevent re-infestation. The turning point came in 1881, when it was accepted (oh so reluctantly) that the best solution would be to graft French vines onto American rootstocks. This involved swallowing a great deal of national pride and was not welcomed in all quarters. As such, the response to Phylloxera remained slow, but by the 1920s, virtually all French grapes grew on vines with American roots. By then however, the damage was done.


A grape leaf visibly affected by Phylloxera

It is estimated that over 40% of all French vineyards were devastated between 1860 and 1875. Many businesses were forced to close and wages in the wine industry were slashed to less than half their pre-Phylloxera levels. The loss to the French economy stood at over 10 billion Francs, while the price of wine soared. Among the worst hit areas were the vineyards of Cognac and Charente, the traditional heartland of brandy production. Such was the destruction that for a few years in the 1870s, brandy was all but unavailable on the market, except at prices that only the very rich could afford.

This in turn caused some merchants to resort to fraud, and a steady stream of fake brandy permeated the market. This was particularly true for imports into Britain. Much of this fake spirit was quite undrinkable, if not outright poisonous, and severely blemished the stellar reputation that brandy enjoyed. Coupled with extortionate prices and low availability, the British upper classes began to search for alternatives. While this was the perfect chance for Scotch to step in and save the day,  many English were quite wary of Scotland and knew little of the whisky produced there. Such was the unawareness that writer Alfred Barnard was commissioned by a London-based magazine to visit every whisky distillery in the UK and report on his experiences. The resulting book The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom has become an absolute classic and helped create a more nationwide interest in Scotch.  Nevertheless, many brandy drinkers found the comparatively rough flavours of whisky quite unpalatable, and turned to sherry instead. This was imported from Spain in large oak casks, which were impractical to be shipped back to their country of origin. Scottish whisky makers pounced gratefully and started ageing their whiskies in these ex-sherry casks. Resulting in a smoother, more complex drink, whisky matured in this way tasted passably like brandy, and became a popular substitute. Many brandy drinkers who were initially reluctant to drink Scotch were won over by this new style of maturation and remained loyal whisky drinkers when brandy returned to the market a few years later. Although it did not happen overnight, whisky had become fashionable and the industry was set for an unprecedented boom.

Responding to the spike in consumer demand, 33 new distilleries opened their doors in the 1890s alone. Existing distilleries ramped up their production and investors were more than happy to speculate with huge quantities of whisky. Even the popular Wine Trade Review declared that “the future of the wine trade is whisky”. Indeed, the amount of whisky stored in warehouses rose from 2 million gallons in 1891 to 13.5 million gallons in 1899. While this Golden Age of whisky is a classic example of  a bubble (not at all dissimilar to the dot-com bubble of a century later) which did eventually pop, it is undeniable that the Scottish whisky industry underwent a period of immense growth at the turn of the 20th century. It had gone from a localised industry without a large home market to a global player in the international spirits arena. These early successes are a large part of what allowed Scottish whisky to survive the combined setbacks of the First World War, Prohibition and the Great Depression. Even so Scotch hung on only by a thread, and at some point in the 1930s the number of active distilleries actually dropped into the single digits. We cannot be sure, but under the conditions of the pre-Phylloxera epidemic, the Scottish whisky industry might not have survived such a slump. In comparison, the much smaller Irish whisky industry fared far worse, and is only now starting to recover from the devastating blow.

Although brandy did eventually return to the market, Scottish whisky went on to become the international premium spirit of choice. It is now enjoyed in over 200 countries and generates over £4 billion in export earnings each year. Although breakthroughs such as the invention of the Coffey still and the introduction of blending have also had a huge impact on whisky’s success story, do not forget to raise a glass to that tiny insect from North America next time you pour yourself a dram!


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