Speed Reads

Downsides of growth

Black, sooty whiskey fungus is spreading through bourbon country, pitting homeowners against distilleries

American bourbon is a growing industry, but the resulting spread of warehouses to age all that bourbon has led to another kind of growth: whiskey fungus. The dark, sooty fungus, Baudoinia compniacensis — named after Antonin Baudoin, a French Distillers' Association director who observed a "plague of soot" at Cognac distilleries in the 1870s — feeds off the ethanol vapors, or "angel's share" of whiskey, that escape from aging barrels.

The people who live near the barrelhouses don't love the bourbon-fueled black plague.

Whiskey fungus in Frankfort, Kentucky

Whiskey fungus in Frankfort, Kentucky

Ivan Couronne/AFP via Getty Images

"The fungus is pretty destructive," James Scott, a University of Toronto professor who has studied the fungus since 2001, tells The New York Times. "It wrecks patio furniture, house siding, almost any outdoor surface. I've seen trees choked to death by it." It's very hard to kill, he added, but thankfully it doesn't "appear to have a negative impact on human health."

Residents in several Kentucky counties have fought expansion by bourbon makers and sued major distilleries, trying to force the companies to install filtered ventilation to stop the spread of whiskey fungus, the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. Their lawsuits were dismissed. Homeowners in Lincoln County, Tennessee, had slightly better luck. 

A Lincoln County judge on Feb. 24 rescinded the building permit for a seventh Jack Daniel's barrelhouse in the county, siding with homeowners Christi and Patrick Long. The Longs say they spend about $10,000 a year power-washing their house with water and Clorox, but they paused the barrelhouse expansion on zoning grounds. 

In Kentucky, "if you go on a distillery tour, they proudly reference the angel's share," Jason Holleman, an attorney for Christi Long, told the Herald-Leader. "But the angel's share results in the devil's fungus." He said the fungus wasn't a problem when the barrelhouses were further apart. Jack Daniel, headquartered in neighboring Moore County, got approval in 2018 to build two barrelhouses in Lincoln County. It now has six and has plans to build up to 20.

Jack Daniel representative Donna Willis told county officials in November that 14 barrelhouses would generate $1 million in property taxes for the county of 35,000 residents. She said adding air filters to barrelhouses, as residents demand, could degrade the flavor Jack Daniel's acquires through aging, and suggested residents manage the "nuisance" of whiskey fungus by "having it washed off."

Melvin Keebler, general manager of the Jack Daniel Distillery, said the company "complies with all local, state, and federal regulations regarding the design, construction, and permitting of our barrelhouses," and is "committed to protecting the environment and the safety and health of our employees and neighbors."