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Baudoinia: The Whiskey Fungus Is Not Dangerous But It Is A Problem

Editor’s Note: This is Part 9 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. Part 8 is here. It comes to us via a reprint from the original article at Chuck’s site.

Happily for whiskey makers in Kentucky and Tennessee, where most American whiskey is made, rural real estate there is inexpensive. Much of both states is too rocky or hilly for productive agriculture, so the most cost-effective Baudoinia compniacensis solution seems to be to locate maturation facilities on very large parcels with few neighbors. Tobacco is gone, coal is going. Whiskey needs space for new maturation facilities and can use land that isn’t much good for anything else. Both states are primarily agricultural and a growing whiskey industry benefits local cereal farmers and meat producers.

In addition to creating a buffer zone through sheer acerage, experts believe a well-wooded property is best for containing the fungus. Warehouses are clustered in the middle, surrounded by enough land and biomass to keep Baudoinia on company property. 

Although less efficient than having everything in one place, stand-alone maturation facilities have some advantages. In addition to Baudoinia containment, they reduce the risk of catastrophic loss from fire or other disasters at the primary facility.

Four Roses whiskey aging
What makes Baudoinia a problem for whiskey makers is not the plant itself but the inchoate fear that it might be harmful. (image via Four Roses)

No one will say on-the-record that Baudoinia containment is why producers are building new maturation facilities the way they are where they are, but that seems to be the case. In Shelby County, Kentucky, Diageo acquired additional land adjacent to its Bulleit Distillery and now has more than 600 contiguous acres there. Some new distilleries, such as Angel’s Envy, Rabbit Hole, and Old Forester, have only token barrel storage at their showcase distilleries in downtown Louisville. Most of their maturing whiskey is elsewhere, typically on a large, isolated parcel in the country.

Remote warehouses may even be a good idea for the smallest distilleries, who need visitor traffic and so want to be in inviting, easily-accessible locations. Often they are in or near residential areas and need neighborhood goodwill. Too little is known about the fungus to accurately predict if a small craft distiller will ever have a problem, but it never hurts to think ahead.

Demand for maturation space in Kentucky and Tennessee continues to grow. Late last year Barrell Craft Spirits, an independent blender and bottler, purchased a historic maturation warehouse at the former Yellowstone Distillery south of Louisville for $2.4 million.

Now Baudoinia is getting in the way.

What makes Baudoinia a problem for whiskey makers is not the plant itself but the inchoate fear that it might be harmful. Toxic molds kill people and most people know nothing about mycology, so all molds scare them. People hostile to whiskey in general are predisposed to fear something called “the whiskey fungus.” Even where there is no actual problem, Baudoinia is ideal for attention-seekers and deliberate mischief-makers.

Baudoinia mitigation is unrealistic so the only practical solution is prevention. The American whiskey industry is growing and dynamic. Baudoinia should not be a problem, but it is. People in or close to the industry don’t take the public’s fear seriously enough because they don’t share it. From personal experience, they know the fungus is harmless. At distilleries it grows on everything and always has. Millions of people in Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as in Canada, France, Scotland, Ireland, and Japan, have been exposed to it, often daily for generations, with no ill effects ever reported.

The beverage alcohol industry is more closely entwined with government at all levels than most other private businesses. Government bodies tend to respond to their constituents and complaints don’t have to be rational to get attention. They just have to be expressed loudly by enough people. The last thing anyone in the industry wants is more government.

The risk is easy to see, but what can be done? Here are a few suggestions.

First, don’t zoom your neighbors, you need their trust. Producers probably are advised by their lawyers to say as little about Baudoinia as possible. Stick to stock phrases so as not to admit liability. That’s futile. If somebody lives near a maturation warehouse and has black fungus on their siding, it’s coming from the warehouse and they know it. Don’t pretend otherwise.

Second, if you have neighbors, be a genuinely good one. Don’t force yourself on them but make sure they know you want to hear about any problems they have with the facility; fungus, noise, odors, traffic, anything. Keep lines of communication open. Support community organizations. Maybe throw a party now and then. It may seem like a pain, but hiring good ombudspeople is much cheaper than hiring good lawyers.

Third, consider cleaning assistance programs such as the one Pernod funds in Canada. This is an opportunity for the Kentucky Distillers Association or some other suitable industry-wide body. It could have the necessary safeguards and best practices, be combined with PR and information outreach, and transform a problem into an opportunity.

Fourth, an all-industry effort to fund scientific research about Baudoinia is another opportunity to turn this problem into an asset. The industry needs to finally and firmly get ahead of the issue. Kentucky and Tennessee have many fine universities. Surely one of them can take this on with suitable funding from industry donors.

Fifth, whiskey tourism has been a hugely beneficial byproduct of whiskey’s current robustness. Visitors come to whiskey country to have a unique experience. Why not make Baudoinia a deliberate part of that experience? Don’t shy away from it, embrace it. Name a street in Bardstown after it.

Whiskey, brandy, and other aged spirits are simple products, made from simple ingredients using methods that have not changed much for hundreds of years. Letting that product sit in oak barrels for a few years, in warehouses open to the environment, is about as natural as it gets. It’s cool to see the stills and all, but the highlight of most first-time distillery visits is the maturation warehouse, especially the aroma. It is as if you are inside the whiskey.

Whiskey is more than just another consumer product and so much more than mere alcohol. Baudoinia is an integral part of that wonderful, natural, weird, ancient and authentic world. It’s a quirky little plant, but it’s our quirky little plant. It doesn’t drink much. Leave it alone.

Chuck Cowdery

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 regular contributor to Whisky Advocate Magazine. Chuck is also the editor and publisher of The Bourbon Country Reader, the oldest publication dedicated exclusively to American whiskey.

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