There’s not much more to say here than “yikes.” The New York Times reports that a gnarly fungus has been causing a big stir among residents of Lincoln County, Tennessee, where the substance is coating the surfaces of homes, cars, and trees like something out of a sci-fi nightmare. Even stranger than the fungus is where it’s coming from: the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, where the brand makes its famous whiskey.
What the hell is whiskey fungus?
Whiskey fungus, scientifically known as Baudoinia compniacensis, is a crusty (sometimes described as “velvety”) variety with an unusual appetite for ethanol. This unfortunately specific source of nutrition is what’s causing headaches for residents of the area, because the vapors emanating from Jack Daniel’s whiskey barrels are spurring the growth of the fungus.
Gastro Obscura published a piece about the sooty-looking stuff in 2019, explaining that the ethanol fumes that escape the barrels (aka the “angel’s share”) might seem to evaporate up into the ether, but when combined with a bit of humidity, they actually come back down to earth and feed the fungus, allowing it to spread. At Jack Daniel’s operational scale, this can lead to explosive fungal growth.
The problem is that once it’s been fed by alcohol, whiskey fungus becomes very tolerant of temperature changes, which means it’s more resilient and can withstand hot summers. Consequently, it hangs around all the time.
Can you get rid of whiskey fungus?
On the plus side, if there is one, this fungus isn’t known to cause negative issues to the human body—it’s mostly just unsightly. That being said, it’s a constant presence, and the jury is out on whether it can damage property if left undisturbed (some experts interviewed by the Times say yes; Jack Daniel’s says no). The Times reports that local residents have had to spend money power-washing the siding on their houses in order to get rid of the growth even temporarily. But it always comes back.
Other spirit-producing places such as the U.S. Virgin Islands (where they make rum) and Scotland (makers of Scotch, naturally) have experienced similar issues that put distillers at odds with locals.
How Tennessee residents are pushing back
Jack Daniel’s sounds like it has been largely dismissive of residents’ concerns. Some homeowners in the area have requested that the company install air filters in its barrelhouses to mitigate the vapors that spur the fungus, but a rep for the brand told the Times that air filters might strip the whiskey of the unique flavors it acquires during the aging process. When residents suggested that Jack Daniel’s shoulder some of the cleaning costs, the rep pointed out that the company can’t power-wash anyone’s homes because it might be held liable for potential damage to the property. Some locals even voiced concerns about their property values.
“Could it be a nuisance?” the Jack Daniel’s rep told the Times. “Yeah, sure. And it can easily be remedied by having it washed off.”
One resident went so far as to sue Lincoln County, claiming that Jack Daniel’s latest set of nearby barrelhouses were being built without proper permits. A judge ruled that one barrelhouse did indeed lack proper permits and Jack Daniel’s must halt construction until the issue is resolved. Hopefully that offers some minor relief from all the fungus.
Litigation is currently underway, but for now, it looks like property owners just have to deal with the black stuff. I don’t anticipate a great ending to all this, only because Jack Daniel’s is part of a multibillion-dollar spirits portfolio and can presumably afford to fight this battle for as long as it takes. In the meantime, the black fungus will continue to cling to the area, if not for many months to come.