GAME CHANGING: WHISKY HISTORY
The insect that boosted blended Scotch
Frequently in life, significant events and future prosperity are precipitated by ‘being in the right place at the right time’. So it was that when a tiny, pale yellow insect with a passion for the leaves and roots of grape vines began to munch its way across Europe during the 1860s, the nascent blended Scotch whisky industry was to benefit immensely
WORDS: GAVIN D SMITH
Blended whisky was a burgeoning business by the end of the 19th century, as a result of William Gladstone’s Spirits Act of 1860, which made it legal to blend malt and grain whisky ‘under bond’.
Unofficial blending of batches of malt whisky had been routinely carried out by merchants and publicans to achieve greater consistency for their customers before the initial piece of legislation was enacted, and one of the first people to exploit its possibilities was Edinburgh wine and spirits merchant Andrew Usher.
He was far from alone, however, and William Robertson, William Sanderson, W P Lowrie and Charles Mackinlay were also early blended Scotch entrepreneurs. Working with his son, also Andrew, Usher launched Usher’s Old Vatted Glenlivet (OVG), a vatting of Glenlivet malts from different years, within months of the 1853 Act coming into force, though Andrew Usher Snr was to die in 1855.
The search for ultimate consistency came in the wake of the Spirits Act, and Andrew Usher Jnr changed OVG from a ‘vatted malt’ to a true blended whisky.
Blended Scotch offered an easier drinking and less variable alternative to pot still whisky, which was somewhat mistrusted south of the border.
There, it was perceived as a rather fierce and unpredictable drink, better suited to a deer stalking expedition or a fishing session in the Highlands than as an alternative to a snifter of brandy in the gentlemen’s clubs and drawing rooms of ‘polite’ society.
Indeed Andrew Usher Jnr’s son, Sir Robert, noted that comparatively little whisky was sold in England prior to 1860. However, after that date “…the trade in Scotch whisky increased by leaps and bounds, the reason being, to my mind, that the blend is lighter and more easily digested, and thus more suited to the public taste. My personal opinion is that the pot still is improved and made more wholesome when blended with patent.”
The small but deadly insect began to be referred to as Phylloxera vastratix (devastator of vines), and by 1889, total wine output in France was less than 28 per cent of that in 1875
So it was that while blended Scotch began to establish itself in the ‘public taste’ of the English, grape phylloxera arrived in Europe on specimens of vines collected in the United States, where the insect originated in the Mississippi valley. It had been hoped that these vines would prove resistant to mildew – a problem for European viniculturists during the 1850s – but instead they caused a far greater problem.
British vineyards were the first to be affected, but in 1863, vines in the high-profile Rhône valley region of southern France inexplicably began to die. And the devastation continued, spreading throughout Europe.
The small but deadly insect began to be referred to as Phylloxera vastratix (devastator of vines), and by 1889, total wine output in France was less than 28 per cent of that in 1875.
It followed that the amount of brandy on the market fell proportionately to that of French wine, leaving English gentlemen with nothing to accompany their soda water. Enter the buccaneering Young Turks of the blended whisky revolution, with the likes of Tommy Dewar, James Buchanan (of Black & White) and Peter Mackie (of White Horse) proceeding to take London by storm, before heading abroad to find new markets to conquer.
However, the situation is not entirely as black and white as has sometimes been portrayed, as it was 1875 before the brandy-making regions of France were affected, and in particular the Cognac and Charente heartlands of production. By this time, blended Scotch had already established a strong following both in Britain and in some export markets, while rum was a casualty of the blended Scotch ‘boom’ almost as much as brandy.
Tommy Dewar, James Buchanan (of Black & White) and Peter Mackie (of White Horse) proceeded to take London by storm, before heading abroad to find new markets to conquer
A cartoon from Punch magazine in 1890 depicting the phylloxera insect
Nonetheless, the fact that the availability of brandy was dramatically curtailed, and the price of any that was available increased beyond the pockets of most drinkers, most certainly played very conveniently into the hands of the blended Scotch entrepreneurs. The extent to which the blended Scotch whisky industry was aided by phylloxera may best be demonstrated by a few statistics. During 1872, three and a half million gallons (16 million litres) of brandy were imported into Britain, but by 1890 the effect of phylloxera had reduced this amount to below one and a half million gallons (6.8 million litres)
Meanwhile output of Scotch whisky increased from 7,801,935 gallons (20,246021 litres) in 1872 to 20,090, 935 gallons (52,135,976 litres) in 1890.
The effects of phylloxera were mitigated by grafting American rootstock onto European vines, with the first laws allowing this to happen being passed in France during 1878 and 1879, and wine and brandy sales began to recover in time. By then, however, blended Scotch whisky had firmly established itself as one of the great drinks of the world.