There is a long-standing belief that the destruction of Europe’s brandy industry by phylloxera created the vacuum that allowed Scotch whisky to become its substitute. While phylloxera did exacerbate brandy’s long-term decline, the great popularity of whisky predates brandy’s decline by more than half a century.
If you’re wondering what Phylloxera vastatrix is, it’s a tiny aphid that hitched a ride to Europe on its food source, American grape rootstock (mainly Vitis labrusca) during the mid-19th Century. When phylloxera arrived in Europe in the early 1860s, local European vines (Vitis vinifera) had no natural repellents to arrest the aphids’ insatiable appetite. It was able to spread unhindered from France to Spain and east to Georgia.
A good place to start looking at whisky is just before phylloxera was detected in France and brandy production had recovered from the oidium outbreak. In 1860, the British consumed only one and half million gallons of brandy to twenty million gallons of whisky. Before phylloxera had arrived in Europe 13 times more whisky was drunk than brandy. Brandy’s popularity was already well in decline. Back in 1825 when 20 million gallons of spirits were drunk in the United Kingdom, 84 per cent was British spirits (mainly whisky), nine per cent colonial spirits (rum) and the remaining seven per cent was foreign spirits (predominately brandy). Irish and Scotch whisky represented seventy percent of total spirits drunk. Today, whisky represents 21 per cent of total spirits drunk in Britain.
Foreign grape brandy was often taxed at a much higher excise rate to British-made spirits, which included colonial rum, gin and British brandy made from malt spirit. Other forces were at play, being rum, gin and emergent whisky.
Brandy’s ascendency was challenged from the 1720s when cheaper West Indies and New England rum joined the London gin craze. The gin phenomena swept into English cities like a tsunami, from a ripple in 1690 to wave peaking in 1743.
It was able to spread unhindered from France to Spain and east to Georgia
Brandy sales peaked in per capita consumption in 1767; although gin and rum were rapidly displacing brandy in the mid-1750s. Whisky would surpass rum in the late 1850s. Even in Scottish cities like Glasgow, rum was the most popular spirit until the 1840s. The advent of continuous patent stills allowed a lighter and a cheaper style to be marketed from the 1860 Excise Act, resulting in whisky’s rapid ascent over its competitors. It stole custom, not from brandy, mostly rum. As whisky grew in demand, it invaded the gentlemen’s clubs. Previously, a provincial spirit drunk as a fortifying tonic when shooting game on the frigid highlands and moorlands. Before phylloxera even entered France’s brandy regions in 1875, whisky had become unassailable in demand and its broadening appeal, from peasant to royalty.
Pre-phylloxera in 1872, Britain imported some three and a half million gallons of brandy, by 1890 phylloxera had reduced this to less than one and a half million gallons. The discovery of grafting American rootstock to European vines stopped the phylloxera cycle, but it would take decades to re-establish the vineyards. Many French brandy wholesalers took a lesson from the Scotch and American whisky industries. With declining stock, many businesses blended brandy with neutral spirit. Sourcing cheap German potato and beet spirit, as well as rectifying imported common American whisky. Blending brandy permitted exports to continue. In Britain, agents were blending brandy with grain spirit, directly competing with British brandy made of malt spirit and flavouring. These were the days before consumer protection, or labelling laws required truthfulness in product claims and ingredients. If a compounded spirit tasted vaguely similar to brandy and people were willing to drink it, it was brandy or whisky. It was estimated 70 per cent of French brandy and Cognac since the 1880s was blended or compounded spirit.
The famous brandy houses of Cognac were fortunate to have deep reserves to weather this storm and were able to maintain their reputation for good, high-quality Cognac.