Editor’s Note: This is Part 8 of a 9-part series about Baudoinia compniacensis, the whiskey fungus. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, Part 3 is here. Part 4 is here. Part 5 is here. Part 6 is here. Part 7 is here. It comes to us via a reprint from the original article at Chuck’s site.
In 2018, In Indiana, Baudoinia compniacensis complaints about the Ross & Squibb Distillery prompted the Indiana State Department of Health to publish a handy fact sheet. A year later, when MGP wanted to add barrel storage capacity in the nearby town of Sunman, locals had a fit.
Around the same time, in Tennessee, Sazerac announced plans to build a new distillery complex on a 55-acre parcel in Murfreesboro, a college town near Nashville. The company intended to make Tennessee whiskey there. USA Today reported that the site’s neighbors were already “concerned about whiskey fungus.”
Two mycologists, one hired by Sazerac, testified to the Murfreesboro City Council that the fungus is harmless. “It does not harm anything as it grows,” said Ekaterina Kaverina, an adjunct biology professor at East Tennessee State University. “It does not grow overnight. It’s a slow growth. It’s very easily washed off. But it will grow back in a few months,” she said. The other expert agreed.
Many nearby homeowners were unconvinced. “Whiskey fungus will 100 percent affect us, our houses, our brand-new houses, and we don’t want those values to drop,” complained one local resident. Someone started a Facebook page called ‘Neighbors Against Blackman Distillery.’ (The proposed distillery didn’t have a name, but the site is in an unincorporated community called Blackman.)
Murfreesboro’s planning commission recommended the city council approve Sazerac’s proposal, but that is where it stopped. Sazerac never developed the property, which it still owns. It is now making its Tennessee whiskey in an industrial park in La Vergne, a Nashville suburb, and keeping a low profile.
In Louisville, lawyer McMurry says the whiskey industry, “has got its head in the sand” about the fungus issue. He insists producers should reduce or eliminate their “fugitive emissions” by installing regenerative thermal oxidizers (RTOs), which use combustion to break down ethanol vapors.
Although E. & J. Gallo has experimented with this technology at its wine and brandy production facilities in California, its applicability to whiskey maturation is by no means certain. And it is not cheap. Capital cost alone is estimated at about $400,000 per warehouse.
Most distilleries have dozens of warehouses so the total cost to retrofit maturation warehouses will run into the millions, plus annual maintenance and operating costs.
McMurry and others, such as the plaintiff in Tennessee, blithely throw out the RTO solution as if it is a sure, easy, and proportional fix. It is not. On top of the enormous cost, it is unproven technology. No one knows if it will work as intended, or at all.
Advocates for that solution also contend, without evidence, that RTOs won’t affect the whiskey. Producers rightly hesitate to alter any aspect of whiskey production, which is still mysterious in many ways.
“Fugitive emissions” is an awkward and deliberately sinister-sounding way to describe what happens in a whiskey warehouse, as the term usually refers to unintended emissions caused by leaks or other equipment malfunctions.
In a maturation warehouse, emissions are intentional, but the permits under which producers operate classify them as “fugitive” because the sources are dispersed. Vapors are released into the atmosphere from deliberately porous containers stored in deliberately porous buildings.
Because emissions enter the atmosphere in this dispersed way, for oxidizers to work some sort of collection system would have to be created to channel emissions into the devices. This would increase the cost and risk altering the way whiskey naturally ages.
Even if RTOs or some other technology can be found to control the fungus without hurting the whiskey, to what end? To clean up a little harmless dirt? What if controlling this harmless, natural flora through some novel technological fix causes some other, unforeseen ecological harm? When you indulge in speculation untethered to facts or science, anything is possible.
NEXT TIME, CONCLUSION: What can be done about Baudoinia?
Charles K. Cowdery is an internationally renowned whiskey writer, specializing in American whiskey. He is a Kentucky Colonel (Patton, 206) and a member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame (2009). He is the author of multiple bourbon books, including Bourbon, Strange: Surprising Stories of American Whiskey, and is a...