How Phylloxera Jumpstarted The Modern Whiskey Industry

Phylloxera brought over on American grape leaves led to a wide demand for whiskey.

The year is 1865, the sun rises over a sprawling vineyard on the Rhône River in the south of France. An abundance of reds, whites, and rosé wines mature in their barrels until ready to be bottled, while some selections are reserved to be distilled off into brandy. Further west, cognacs and armagnacs abound—the product of age-old traditions indicative of the sophisticated viticulture of France.

These wines and spirits flow across Europe, reaching the lips of nobility and common folk alike, bringing riches to the vintners throughout the country. Fast forward ten years. The precious vines have withered in their fields, barrels (and coffers) have run dry, and whispers abound from far corners of the country that this plague has ravaged all of southern France. Could this catastrophe have been a vengeful act of God, or the work of demons?

Consumers, rushing to fill the void once fulfilled by brandy, were forced to turn to an unconventional new spirit to quench their thirst: Scotch whiskey. The English, largely unfamiliar with the curious liquor produced by their northern neighbors, were not quick to indulge in scotch. The spirit remained obscure until writer Alfred Barnard paid a visit to over one hundred Scottish distilleries, tirelessly cataloguing the mechanics of scotch production in his groundbreaking book The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, published in 1887.

English consumers warmed to the drink, bolstered by the Scottish practice of aging whiskey in ex-Sherry casks, which produced a smoother mouthfeel more reminiscent of the precious brandy that was robbed from them. The 1890s saw unprecedented growth in Scotch production, with close to forty new distilleries opening across the region. As scotch caught on as a sophisticated alternative to brandy, vintners throughout Western Europe scrambled to restore their ruined vineyards, employing methods such as the burial of a live toad under each grapevine, or placing holy water sourced from the Catholic town of Lourdes throughout the fields.

The true origin of this blight can be traced back to North America, where a tiny parasitic insect named Phylloxera lied in wait. North American grape vines had evolved in step with these tiny bugs, producing a viscous sap to plug up the hungry mouths of Phylloxera nymphs. The European variety of grape vines, however, had no such defense. During the late 1850s, European vintners imported American vines and incorporated them into their properties, eager to experiment with different grape varieties.

Unbeknownst to the Europeans, the abated Phylloxera had come along for the journey, and in the presence of new, completely defenseless vines, the tiny insects feasted to their hearts’ delight. The population exploded from the early 1860s to the 1870s, sweeping across France like a biblical plague, bringing ruin to the booming brandy industry. After countless attempts to remedy the plague, it was finally decided that the best solution would be to graft the hardy North American vines onto European vines. Vintners were hesitant to taint their products with a foreign-grown crop, but were ultimately forced to adopt this cure.

As grape producers struggled to pick up the pieces of their former empire, the masses had found their new drink of choice. Scotch had caught on with the people of Europe, and was on its way to establishing itself as a major player in the global spirits market. This boom is scotch production was short lived, as the industry suffered greatly in the early 1900s, brought on by a sudden nosedive in whiskey prices followed closely by the onslaught of World War I and the Great Depression. Few Scotch distilleries were able to weather these constant misfortunes, and a large number of them were forced to close down.

Prominent Speyside distilleries such as Glenfiddich, Balvenie, and Craigellachie are modern-day holdovers that survived this period of uncertainty, all founded during the 1880s-1890s Scotch boom. Had the insect scourge not descended upon Western Europe, the brands we know today may have never have come into fruition. So the next time you’re enjoying a mint julep at the Derby, sipping the perfect highball in Tokyo, or slamming a pickleback in Brooklyn, pause for a moment to reflect on our friend Phylloxera.