Whiskey Fungus: Yes, It’s a Thing
Frost said “good fences make good neighbors.” Some say the phrase is ironic; others insist it’s simply being sensible. In truth, it’s really a bit of both. Not that it matters. Not here. And not now. Because we’re talking about whiskey fungus, and that makes good neighbors of no one. It doesn’t make for much of a neighborhood either.
Yes, by now you’ve undoubtedly heard word about the fence-hopping fungus that’s taken over a certain rural Tennessee neighborhood. And the word you heard was anything but good. Then again, there’s not much good to say about a black mold-like substance that relentlessly encroaches across everything everywhere.
Just ask Christi Long, who operates a local events company out of her 4,000-square-foot, 123-year-old mansion. The property, known as the Manor at ShaeJo, happens to neighbor Jack Daniel’s. Well, six Jack Daniel’s’ barrelhouses to be more precise. Consequently, her entire property is constantly covered in a thick viscous substance commonly called whiskey fungus. Sure, a thorough power-washing removes the moldy goop from the buildings and the walks and the furnishings. But you can’t power-wash the trees. Not without tearing the hell out of them anyway. And Long’s rural property is covered in trees.
Is it a shame whiskey fungus is causing those once green trees to turn blacker by the day? You bet. What’s even more shameful though is that Jack Daniel’s has plans to add another eight barrelhouses to the already moldy equation. One, in fact, is already under construction.
Long is suing to stop them.
Whiskey fungus is the unseemly residue that settles on everything in sight as alcohol evaporates during distillation. The wrath has surely been around forever, but, writes the New York Times’ Michael Levenson, it was first brought to bright light “in the 1870s, when Antonin Baudoin, the director of the French Distillers’ Association, observed a ‘plague of soot’ blackening the walls of distilleries in Cognac, France.”
University of Toronto professor James A. Scott told Levenson “he was not aware of any research specifically looking at the health effects of exposure to the fungus.” That doesn’t however mean that whiskey fungus has been proved harmless. It clearly damages property and destroys trees. In fact, the Indiana State Department of Health’s Environmental Public Health Division recommends using “N95 masks, goggles, and gloves during removal.”
It’s a cinch that Scott, who “has studied the fungus since 2001 — and [even] helped name its genus, Baudoinia, in honor of Baudoin,” dons gloves, goggles and mask at whisky fungus work too.
What Whiskey Fungus Is Not
Yes, writes the ISDH, whiskey fungus is officially named Baudoinia compniacensis. Besides Whiskey Fungus, it’s also known as Distillery Fungus and Warehouse Staining Fungus. The black fungus is velvety or crust-like and can reach 1-2 cm in thickness, says the Fact Sheet. Yet, while it is black in color, it is not Stachybotrys, aka black mold.
Mold or not, the unsightly mess is found throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. It has the ability to withstand a large range of temperatures too. All it needs is high relative humidity and periodic rain. From there the fungus can grow on just about every imaginable surface, “including plants, brick, metal, stainless steel, concrete, and plastic.”
While the fungus can be found anywhere fermentation occurs, including bakeries and bogs, it it is most pronounced in distilleries. Not just whiskey distilleries either. But those that generate scotch, vodka, brandy, and rum as well. Why? “Because ethanol is off-gassed in the making of [all] distilled spirits.”
Between the physical damage and destruction and it’s obvious impact on the air, it’s hard to believe whiskey fungus isn’t harmful.
For the Courts to Decide?
Then again, there’s no real research. That means whether or not whiskey fungus is or isn’t harmful may end up being something for the courts to decide. At the very least a judge will have to decide whether or not Jack Daniel’s is abiding by all building and operational codes. Right now, it appears that they haven’t. And their latest building permit has just been rescinded.
But that’s simply for the barrelhouse currently under construction. It doesn’t address a planned eighth, nor the additional six proposed for an adjacent property. And it most certainly doesn’t address the apparent foulness emanating from the half dozen barrelhouses currently operating.
Long wants Jack Daniel’s to do more. Much more. For her and her family, as well as for her Lincoln County neighbors. The least the company could do would be to install proper ventilation in all of its barrelhouses and clean the county of the fungus it spread.
Jack Daniel’s said air filters will affect the whiskey’s flavor and power-washing would open them up to potential damages.
Though this face-off has a certain David vs Goliath quality at its core, it isn’t simply about one historic building owner going up against an even more historic company. No, this is about history and legacy coming down upon the heads of an entire community. After all, many would argue that there’d be no Tennessee without Tennessee Whiskey. Whiskey fungus is simply part of the price of doing business.
Big business. Jack Daniel’s representative, Donna Willis, told Lincoln County officials in November that 14 barrelhouses would generate $1 million in annual property tax revenue for the county. Obviously hinting that they really needed to build the additional eight.
Willis didn’t however mention how much Lincoln County would be paying to clean-up after Jack Daniel’s. She also didn’t mention that the brand earned in excess of $321 million last year, nor that parent company Brown-Forman brought in nearly $4 billion.
Angels’ Share = Devil’s Fungus
Besides money and legacy, there might be another reason why Jack Daniel’s and other distilleries have long been getting away with spreading whiskey fungus – its euphemism.
“If you go on one of these distillery tours, they will tell you about the ‘angels’ share’ that goes into the atmosphere,” said Long’s attorney, Jason Holleman.
And who can argue with making offerings to angels?
“Unfortunately,” he added, “that also results in the devil’s fungus.”
Jack Daniel’s isn’t the first big dollar concern to play things folksy. Heck, considering the brand was born and bred in neighboring Moore County (aka Lynchburg), population 6,461, folksy likely comes naturally. But this isn’t the mid 19th century, and pollutants don’t abide by county lines. Even if whiskey fungus did stay put, don’t those folks deserve a fungi-free life? Of course they do. And so do their 35,319 neighbors in Lincoln County, as well as the nearly seven million living in the land-locked state of Tennessee itself.