Friday, May 26, 2023

Who Makes America's Whiskey Now?


A photo from the American Craft Spirits Association to represent craft spirits.

Seven years ago, it struck me that for all the sound and fury about new brands and new distilleries, things had not changed very much since I made a similar survey two years before. In my 2014 book, Bourbon, Strange, I wrote that just eight companies distilled all of America’s whiskey at just thirteen distilleries. Two years later, it was ten companies and fifteen distilleries. Today, well, it’s a lot more of both.

I was looking at it in 2016 because so many distilleries were debuting later that year or in 2017. We had folks such as Angel’s Envy who were underway but still ramping up. This is always a moving target.

The ”all” in both statements is more properly “virtually all.” Of the 2,500 or so distilleries now operating in the U.S., most produce very little, a drop in the bucket of total U.S. whiskey production. Even all put together they don't amount to much. That’s not a knock, just a fact. As the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) puts it: 

“The U.S. craft spirits market is fairly concentrated with larger producers making up only 1.6% of the total number of craft producers, but are responsible for 56.6% of the cases sold. 90.1% of U.S. craft producers are classified as small producers. They are responsible for just 10.3% of the cases sold annually.” 

The ACSA does not even count producers who make more than 750,000 proof gallons annually. For my list, I put the cut-off a bit lower, at 500,000. If I hadn’t, the number would not have changed at all.

The ACSA figures are also for all spirits, they don’t break out whiskey. 

Overall, the data is not there for the picking. You have to suss it out. With whiskey, it’s hard to know what to count, since the product the companies are selling now was distilled four to ten years ago. Do you count how much they’re selling or how much they’re making? 

Neither number is readily available, but since distillery output is forward-looking, let’s stick with that. Only one of the four biggest companies, Brown-Forman, is public so they have to disclose that sort of thing. The other three—Beam Suntory, Sazerac, and Heaven Hill—only disclose what they want to disclose. So, the results of this exercise should be considered as falling somewhere between a rough estimate and an educated guess. Feel free to improve it if you can.

In 2016, the two companies not on the 2014 list were New Riff and Michter’s. For 2023, you can add Lux Row (now part of MGP), Bardstown Bourbon Company (including Green River), Wilderness Trail, Jackson Purchase, and Angel’s Envy, all in Kentucky. In Tennessee, there is Tennessee Distilling Group. In Texas, Firestone and Robertson. 

Meanwhile, the majors have all gotten bigger, both by adding distilleries and expanding their current ones. Brown-Forman and Sazerac each added one. Diageo added two. Four Roses essentially cloned itself, doubling capacity, but all at one location. The other majors from the original lists, Wild Turkey (Campari) and Ross & Squibb (MGP), have gotten bigger too. 

I'm not counting demonstration distilleries, like Michter's Fort Nelson and the Evan Williams Experience, as distilleries in these counts.

That brings us to 16 companies operating 28 distilleries of varying sizes. Most of the new guys are in the contract distilling and bulk whiskey business to a greater or lesser extent and are at the lower end of the volume scale, but the combine of Bardstown Bourbon and Green River is putting up some big numbers, as are Wilderness Trail and Tennessee Distilling Group.

And we’re not finished. If we double the threshold, to one million proof gallons per year, we can probably stop here, and maybe even lose one or two. But if we keep the cut-off where it was in 2016, at 500,000 gallons, we have a few more names to add: Willett, Castle & Key, Rabbit Hole, and Sagamore Spirits all appear to be in that range. They are all about the same size and have a few years under their belts. I may be missing a couple of others.

Then there are the folks just getting started, such as Lot Still in Kentucky and Nearest Green in Tennessee. Nearest has an 18-inch column still. So do Driftless Glenn and Dancing Goat (Wisconsin), Wyoming Whiskey, and Southern Distilling (North Carolina), and probably a bunch more I don’t know about. Still size tells us maximum capacity, they have to tell us how much they're actually producing.

So, yeah, the needle has moved, bigly. It's hard to keep up. 

The big four are still the big four, by the way, and if the newcomers have made a dent in their combined 75 percent market share, it isn't by much. Maybe now it's more like 70 percent.

What does it all mean? That's a question for another time.

Friday, May 19, 2023

Do Taylor Swift Fans Appreciate Having Their Own Cocktails?


Bad Blood Sangria, Starlight Pear Lemonade, and French 1989.

Kristen wrote: "Hi Charles K., Taylor Swift is taking the world by storm, and plenty of Swifites (sic), including the staff at Omni Boston Hotel at the Seaport, are drawing inspiration from her record-breaking Era’s tour! Below are some cocktail recipes Omni Boston Hotel at the Seaport’s rooftop restaurant Lifted, is serving from May 19-21 in honor of Taylor’s Boston shows that can also be enjoyed at home!"

This caught my eye because I like being called "Charles K." Looking further, the whole package (an email press release I received because I'm apparently on some lists) fascinated me from a pop culture perspective. I confess that while I am aware of Taylor Swift, I am not a participant, so I genuinely don't know what to make of any of this. I suspect most of you, dear readers, are in the same boat. I present it for our mutual cultural edification.

Although American whiskey, like Taylor Swift, is taking the world by storm, none of these drinks contain whiskey. 

Here are the recipes:

Bad Blood Sangria. Combine 4 oz Pinot Noir, 1 oz Blood Orange Purée, 1 oz Orange Juice, and 0.75 oz Lemon Juice. Shake and strain into a wine glass. Top with 1 oz Sprite.  

French 1989. Combine 2 oz Bombay Sapphire Gin, 1 oz Lemon Juice, and 1 oz Strawberry Rose Syrup with ice. Shake and strain into a coupe. Top with 2 oz Prosecco.  

Starlight Pear Lemonade. Combine 2 oz Malfi Lemon Gin, 1 oz Lemon Juice, 0.5 oz Lavender Syrup, and 0.75 oz Desert Pear Syrup with ice. Shake and strain into a rocks glass. Top with a splash of club soda.

Friday, May 12, 2023

Green River, the Whiskey Without Regrets, Launches Flagship Bourbons


A maturation warehouse at Green River Distillery in Owensboro, Kentucky.

Green River is just a name. But, oh, what a name.

As for the river itself, there is a Green River in just about every U.S. state, and elsewhere, but the one in Kentucky is the Green River John Prine sings about in his song, “Paradise.” Three-hundred-eighty-four miles long, all of it in Kentucky, the Green flows through Muhlenberg County and is still an important waterway for coal and aluminum producers in Western Kentucky.

The Green enters the Ohio between Owensboro and Henderson. In 1885, John W. McCulloch bought a small distillery on the Green called Green River. A few years later, he took the name and built a new distillery in Owensboro, along a rail line. His original slogan, “The Whiskey Without a Headache,” was banned by government regulators. He changed it to, “The Whiskey Without Regrets.” It was a huge success.

After Prohibition, the Green River Distillery became Medley Brothers. No one picked up the brand. Medley stopped distilling in 1992. Revived in 2016, it was rechristened Green River in 2020 with the McCulloch family’s involvement. About this time last year, Green River was acquired by Bardstown Bourbon Company. Both are now owned by Chicago's Pritzker Group.

We review all that history, and Green River’s recently-released flagship bourbons, in the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader.

Other headlines in this issue: “Wyoming Whiskey Releases 10-Year Anniversary Edition Bourbon,” “Jeptha Creed, Kentucky Farmer-Distillers for the 21st Century,” “MGP/Luxco Acquires Penelope Bourbon Brand for $105M,” and we remember the late distiller, John Lunn.

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Saturday, April 22, 2023

The Owsleys of Kentucky


Augustus Owsley Stanley III (1935-2011)

For a teenager in the late 1960s, the name "Owsley" meant just one thing. It was synonymous with the drug LSD, which Owsley Stanley manufactured in his clandestine California lab. Owsley Stanley was also famous as audio engineer for The Grateful Dead. He was as important in that field as he was as an underground chemist. The Dead had the most advanced sound system of any touring band and, no doubt, the best acid.

The name "Owsley" also sticks out to me because it shows up frequently in the history of Brown-Forman, America's top whiskey company. During one of Brown-Forman's periodic image re-dos, one internal wag suggested as their new company slogan, "We're the only company with two Owsleys." 

Augustus Owsley Stanley (1867-1958)

Although he had no direct connection to the Brown-Forman Owsleys, the Dead’s Owsley Stanley, also known as ‘Bear,’ was a Kentucky Owsley and got his name the same way they did. His full name was Augustus Owsley Stanley III. He was named for his grandfather (1867-1958), who was Governor of Kentucky (1915-1919) and then represented Kentucky in the United States Senate (1919-1925). 

When a prominent surname appears as a first or middle name, it usually is because your mother’s family is too important not to claim. Such was the case with both sets of Kentucky Owsleys. The link between them was the 16th Governor of Kentucky, William Owsley. 

William Owsley (1783-1862)

Born in Virginia, William Owsley’s parents brought him to Kentucky as an infant in 1783. He was well-educated and worked as a teacher, surveyor, and deputy sheriff before studying law. He was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1809 and later became a judge on the Court of Appeals. Elected to the Kentucky Senate in 1832, he left that job to become Kentucky Secretary of State. He served four years as governor beginning in 1844, after which he retired to his farm near Danville, age 66. He lived there happily for another 14 years.

Governor Owsley had an older brother, Nudigate (sometimes spelled ‘Nudeget’), who also came to Kentucky. The name Nudigate was itself a surname converted into a given name. Nudigate Owsley had a daughter named Amanda, making her the governor’s niece. Amanda and her husband, Reverend William Stanley, named their first-born Augustus but gave him his mother's prestigious surname as a middle name. He became the governor after whom the famous chemist/audio tech was named. 

As for the Brown-Forman connection, Governor William Owsley had a son, Erasmus, who had a daughter, Amelia. In 1869, the governor’s granddaughter was a 21-year-old widow with a baby daughter. George Garvin Brown, 23 and unmarried, snapped her up. George went on to found and lead Brown-Forman. A son was born to George and Amelia, and they named him Owsley after his notable great-grandfather. He joined the company in 1904 and became president when his father died in 1917, just three years before the whiskey-making business was shut down due to Prohibition. Owsley obtained a medicinal whiskey license and kept the business going that way. 

Owsley Brown (1879-1952)

Owsley married Laura Lee Lyons and they had three children, two sons and a daughter. Two of them named one of their sons Owsley (Owsley Brown II and Owsley Brown Frazier), hence the “two Owsleys” employed at Brown-Forman in the late 20th century were first cousins. Their company prospered and both Owsleys became billionaires. 

When the original Owsley Brown wanted to restart Brown-Forman after Prohibition, he invited his brothers and sisters to invest before he sought outside money. Only one, his younger brother Robinson Swearingen Brown, responded, creating a cadet branch of the Brown family within the company, one that continues to this day, and is notable for its lack of Owsleys.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Baudoinia: the Fungus and Me


Fun with fungi.

This is a personal epilogue to the nine-part series just concluded about Baudoinia compniacensis, the whiskey fungus. If you have not read it and are interested, the series starts here.

I became aware of Baudoinia about 30 years ago, when I began to spend a lot of time at distilleries. I noticed it first at Jim Beam in Clermont. The black-trunked trees caught my attention. I had never seen bark that black. I thought it might be some Kentucky tree species with which I was unfamiliar. So I asked, which got a laugh.

They called it "the whiskey fungus." I never heard any other name for it until I dug into the research. Baudoinia is its new name, as mentioned in the series. The name I first encountered was Torula compniacensis, at which point I decided to keep calling it "the whiskey fungus."

Only after my inquiry about the trees did I begin to notice it on the sides of warehouses and other buildings. It usually appears darkest at ground level and gets lighter the higher on the wall it goes. It looks like dirt. Most people think it is dirt. I did. Most people don't like dirt, but they aren't afraid of it.

I had a friend back then who lived next to the Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown. Her house was literally the first one outside the old main gate. She had some on her garage. She said a couple times a year she called the Barton office and they sent someone over with a power washer, no charge. 

These days it's not so simple. "Cleaning assistance, which we did, is more complicated than it appears," a retired bourbon company executive told me. "We had serious concerns that some of the houses would fall over from pressure washing. We had people sic their dogs on the cleaning crews," he said. "Just getting releases signed was a nightmare."

I never heard anyone express concern about it as anything other than a mild nuisance until 2012, when the trouble in Louisville began. That story, especially the Stitzel-Weller part, is the throughline for the series.

As I read about the Metro Louisville Air Pollution Control District citation that started the ball rolling, I thought back to a lunch I had with Bill Samuels Jr. in 2003 or 2004, at Kurtz's in Bardstown. (I had a hot brown, I think Bill had fish.) As we were finishing, Bill mentioned he was on his way to Louisville for a meeting with that agency, or its predecessor, or maybe the federal EPA. I asked if something was going on. He said no, he had to meet with them every couple years to review the distillery's emissions profile. Ethanol vapor was mentioned but carbon-dioxide released during fermentation was usually a bigger concern. 

The point of that memory is that distilleries routinely interact with applicable government monitors and regulators about all relevant emissions issues. Despite all the romance attached to them recently, distilleries are factories. Their operations impact air and water quality and always have. Baudoinia didn't suddenly come out of nowhere in 2012. Nobody is hiding anything about Baudoinia from the government or the public. I suspect that 2012 citation was made in error by someone unfamiliar with the industry.

I am about as far from a scientist as you can get, so my understanding of these things is a layperson's, but a layperson who has followed the subject over a 30-year period. The literature is not extensive and I have read most of it. The series just concluded covers the subject as thoroughly as possible. 

Fungi play an important role in bourbon-making. In my 2014 book, Bourbon, Strange, I wrote about Aureobasidium pullulans, one of several fungal species that help release flavor compounds in white oak during natural seasoning. To quote me: "Carried by air, the spores land and send out roots (hyphae) that penetrate into the wood structure, where they release hydrogen peroxide. This natural bleaching and oxidizing agent helps break down the wood chemically, softening tannins and caramelizing hemicellulose among other salutary effects."

Other molds follow Aureobasidium and continue its work, but not Baudoinia. It's useless. It doesn't do anything. It can't even caramelize a little hemicellulose. It is neither good nor bad, just ugly. 

Fungi are part of our environment. Very few are dangerous. The mushrooms on your pizza? Those are fungi too. If you got them at the grocery they're probably fine. If you picked them off a log by the creek behind your house, maybe not.

But molds, not mushrooms, are the fungi that scare people these days and Baudoinia is mold. If you would like to know more about the assorted fungi popularly known as mold, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has a wealth of mold resources.

In Kentucky and Tennessee, Baudoinia is the mold that has people's teeth on edge. "It may cause cancer also, which they don't care to admit," is a recent comment posted in social media, in response to my Baudoinia series, by a person who, ironically, is living proof that his fear is misplaced. He and his similarly aggrieved Kentucky neighbors have lived their entire lives surrounded by Baudoinia, exposed to it more than just about anyone else in the world. 

The Kentucky communities where whiskey is made are about 250 years old. Baudoinia has been conspicuous there for at least 150 years, which is when they started to fill warehouses with thousands of barrels of aging bourbon. If Baudoinia could hurt you, the evidence would be there, in central Kentucky, or south-central Tennessee, or in Scotland, or Cognac, or Lakeshore, Ontario. There is none.

People keep saying, without evidence, that Baudoinia is dangerous. It is not. They keep saying it hasn't been studied. In fact it has been studied extensively, by multiple scientists, in Europe and the Americas, over that 150-year period. It has some novel characteristics, but nothing remotely dangerous. The evidence cited for its danger is its mere existence. "Something that looks that bad can't be good for you," is about as far as it goes. "It's killing our trees!" the Tennessee litigants claim. Something may be killing their trees, but it's not Baudoinia.

So, why do people freak out about Baudoinia? As I theorized in the series, in the 1990s, the danger of toxic molds entered the public consciousness. Because Baudoinia is unusual, and unfamiliar, many people assume it must be harmful. Add to that its connection to whiskey, to which some people morally object. A fungus that feeds on whiskey vapors? Get thee behind me, Satan! Other objectors know it's not dangerous, but are embarrassed to whine about a little dirt on their lawn furniture, so they conjure up a hideous, hidden threat. Some people just want attention. 

The narrative that multinational poison merchants are callously polluting rural communities with dangerous emissions, and spreading disease-causing mutant plants, is catnip for the conspiratorially-inclined.

As far as that goes, we're all living in a petri dish, but we're not talking about flesh-eating bacteria or brain-eating amoebae or what have you. Baudoinia is basically mildew. Living near a whiskey plant and complaining about Baudoinia is like living at the beach and complaining about sand. We've all got bigger things to worry about.  

Don't you realize it's that phone you're staring at right now that's going to kill you?

Finally, in some of the worst timing ever, Kentucky's distillers have just pushed a bill through the legislature to eliminate the hefty 'barrel tax' that goes directly to the county governments where maturation warehouses are located. Taking millions out their budgets has those governments up in arms, vowing to stop new warehouse construction citing, among other issues, public health concerns about Baudoinia.

Whiskey makers, both legacy and new, want to make their products in Kentucky and Tennessee for many reasons. Most important is the market's preference for Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, but they also like being where their industry's idiosyncrasies are understood and appreciated. Distillers and politicians seem determined to screw that up.

I have written about Baudoinia before. I have written about it so many times I can type Baudoinia without checking the spelling. Most of this series was originally published in my newsletter, The Bourbon Country Reader. If you like this sort of thing, feel free to subscribe.

I posted this series because when this subject pops up, it usually is because a new distillery or maturation facility has been proposed. The local media does their best, as do concerned community members, but if they go online to do research most of what they will find is hot but not well informed opposition that is little more than a typical not-in-my-backyard reaction to any development someone views as unfavorable to their personal interests. 

I also posted it here on my blog because a 7,000-word article about an obscure fungal species is not the sort of thing very many editors are interested in, even (or perhaps especially) at the whiskey publications. (My view stats for this series tells me they're right.) You won't get the full story from any of the companies or industry trade associations either. That's probably a mistake. 

I admit to being pro-bourbon but otherwise have no axe to grind. I was interested in the subject because of my interest in bourbon so I did a lot of research about it. This is what I found out.

I hope, if you got this far, it was useful. 

5/21/23: Since this was published, many people have asked if there is a technological solution. Yes, there is. It's this.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Baudoinia: the Whiskey Fungus Is Not Dangerous but It Is a Problem


Masonry maturation warehouses at Green River Distillery, Owensboro, Kentucky.

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.

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 acreage, 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.  

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.

NEXT TIME: A personal epilogue to the Baudoinia series.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Baudoinia: the Fungus Is Not Welcome in Tennessee


Proposed Sazerac distillery near Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

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.

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?