In addition to getting to the story three months late, yesterday's New York Times piece about Kentucky's whiskey fungus and the recent lawsuits regarding it conveyed some false impressions.
For example, the reporting of a 2007 study in which the fungus was formally named, along with quotations from plaintiffs calling it 'mysterious,' makes it seem like something new. Reported much later is the fact that the fungus has been observed around distilled spirits warehouses since at least 1870. The 2007 study is merely the most recent of many.
The reporter, Melena Ryzik, also waits until the very end of a fairly long article to point out that there is "no evidence ... whiskey fungus causes health problems in humans or animals." In fact, generations of exposure provides pretty convincing evidence that it does not. Even the plaintiffs, no doubt carefully coached by their lawyer, William F. McMurry, have as their biggest complaint that when they clean the stuff off, it grows back.
So, by the way, does the mildew in your shower. Who are you going to sue about that?
For readers who have not experienced it personally, the whiskey fungus is very similar to common mildew.
Lawyers have to make a living, of course, and these recent cases appear to be nothing more than a bid by McMurry to make a little money for himself, and maybe even for the plaintiffs. According to the Times, McMurry wants the courts to order distillers to “stop off-gasing ethanol," an ominous-sounding but completely made-up term. He further claims that "this is not going to affect their bottom line and the flavor of whiskey," which is, of course, nonsense. Any mitigation that prevents ethanol vapors from leaving the distillery grounds will surely do both.
And for what?
All of this fuss is about something natural and harmless. Some consider it unsightly, but it washes off with soap, water, and a little elbow grease. The companies being sued have to be careful about what they say so this story is being reported mostly from the point-of-view of the poor, aggrieved plaintiffs, which makes for a better story anyway.
The plaintiffs brought these lawsuits hoping to make some money, but may have outsmarted themselves if by publicizing the fungus and making it seem worse than it is they depress their property values.
It's impossible to predict what will happen, but nothing should come of this.
Only one thing has changed in recent years and that is production volume. Kentucky's distilleries are making, and therefore aging, more whiskey now than they have in more than 40 years. That likely means there is more fungus where it was before and it's probably spreading further than it did before, so more people are affected.
Any reasonable weighing of the economic good of a robust whiskey business against the ostensible harm of the fungus has to come out on the industry's side, but that word 'reasonable' is the caveat. Unbalanced reporting by the esteemed New York Times doesn't help.