What is 'whiskey fungus'? Where Baudoinia compniacensis comes from, if it's dangerous, and how to get rid of it
- People living near whiskey barrelhouses complain of a black fungus covering homes, cars, and trees.
- "Whiskey fungus," or Baudoinia compniacensis, feeds on alcohol vapor from distilled spirits.
Black "whiskey fungus" is covering cars and homes around Jack Daniel's barrelhouses, according to residents of Lincoln County, Tennessee.
The fungus, called Baudoinia compniacensis, feeds on alcohol vapor, the substance whiskey makers call the "angel's share" of distilled spirits that evaporates during maturation.
It was first discovered around distilleries in the Cognac region of France in the 1870s and has thrived around many distilleries worldwide including in the US and Canada.
"I'd say it's more than a nuisance," James Scott, the mycologist who first classified whiskey fungus, told Insider. "It is really destructive."
The sooty, black gunk resembles toxic black mold, which can be concerning to those who first see it, as well as those forced to live with it.
Patrick Long, who lives adjacent to the Jack Daniel's barrelhouses, and whose wife, Christi Long, filed a lawsuit against Lincoln County, told Insider the community has been demanding that Jack Daniel's implement an air-filtration system to block the ethanol emissions and stunt the growth of the fungus.
They also want the company or the county to commission an environmental-impact study to determine whether the fungus' food source — the ethanol vapor in the air — is safe for residents to breathe.
What is whiskey fungus?
"Angel's share" refers to the spirits that evaporate during aging. A small percentage of alcohol evaporates through the pores of the wood as the product matures.
Whiskey fungus grows in the presence of these ethanol vapors, and it tends to cover a wide range of nearby surfaces, including construction materials, road signs, fences, outdoor furniture, and cars. It can also colonize natural materials like rock and vegetation.
"The buildings will have almost an inch thick of black crust in some cases," said Scott, who founded the microbiology consulting company Sporometrics. He has served as an expert in lawsuits related to whiskey fungus and has consulted for distilleries.
"I couldn't believe it when I first saw it," he added.
Is whiskey fungus dangerous?
So far, researchers have not found any human health risks related to exposure to Baudoinia compniacensis, but it can damage property and kill trees.
Research conducted by Indiana state health officials found no known health effects from short- or long-term exposure to Baudoinia compniacensis but advised homeowners to use N95 masks, goggles, and gloves while removing it, according to a 2019 report.
"No known human health impacts just means that no one has really ever looked to see if there are human health impacts," Scott said. "That's based on an absence of information."
Still, Scott said if whiskey fungus is toxic, health problems would likely be widespread among people who work in distilleries and whiskey warehouses.
Even as an allergen, Scott doesn't think whiskey fungus is a bigger problem than the other fungi growing naturally in the environment. He said that testing hasn't found much Baudoinia compniacensis drifting around distilleries where a lot of whiskey fungus is present. The fungus likes to anchor itself firmly to surfaces, making it difficult to remove, he said.
Even if the fungus itself is not hazardous to human health, Jack Daniel's has publicly fielded complaints from Lincoln County residents who said they're concerned about the amount of ethanol in the air that's feeding the fungus and worry about it causing lung cancer.
Lawsuits in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Canada
Patrick and Christi Long moved into their Lincoln County home in 2020, when the fungus caused by two Jack Daniel's barrelhouses was just a minor nuisance. Since then, Jack Daniel's has constructed six more facilities, producing six times as much alcohol vapor, and plans to build 14 more.
Christi Long has since won a small victory in her lawsuit against Lincoln County. In a court order obtained by Insider, Chancellor J.B. Cox wrote that he had no choice but to force Lincoln County to issue a stop-work order on one of the barrelhouses, which is still under construction.
Jason Holleman, Long's attorney, told Insider he's pleased with the court's decision to address the under-construction barrelhouse. Long's lawsuit was about zoning violations, not whiskey fungus specifically, but Holleman said he hopes Lincoln County will also take action to address the emissions.
"My clients, and other people I've heard from in the related community, continue to feel strongly that this issue has to be addressed," Holleman said. "What's happened this week with the court ruling is a first step towards that. But it is certainly not the last step."
Lincoln County did not respond to Insider's request for comment. Shawn Henry, the outside counsel hired by Lincoln County, confirmed to Insider that the county issued the stop-work order on Thursday.
The Longs are not the first to take legal action over whiskey fungus from distilleries. Kentucky homeowners filed class-action lawsuits against several Louisville distilleries over the black fungus in 2012, though they were eventually dismissed. And a group of Canadians filed a class-action lawsuit in 2021 against owners of the Hiram Walker distillery in Lakeshore, Ontario.
How to get rid of the sooty, black fungus
Long told Insider the fungus has gotten so bad in his community that local officials stopped trying to remove the soot from road signs that are no longer legible and just replace them when they're too blackened to read.
He personally spends $10,000 a year to power wash his house with a mix of water and Clorox to keep the fungus away, he said.
"The only way to really get it off is by pressure washing, sometimes with additional scrubbing," said Scott, adding that people should wear masks while cleaning it.
Whiskey fungus can cost homeowners a lot of money, Scott said, since siding on homes isn't usually designed to withstand frequent pressure washing and often needs to be replaced early. The fungus can also "wreck" patio furniture, he added, and corrode coating on cars.
Scott's colleague at Sporometrics, Richard Summerbell, told Insider he hasn't found any reliable method to prevent the fungus from growing in the first place. Residents can slow its growth on their cars with weekly washings, he said.
Professional cleaners often help homeowners remove the gunk by using a mix of a biocide and pressure washing, according to several company websites. The biocide is used to prevent regrowth on the same surface.
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