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?


Saturday, April 8, 2023

Baudoinia: the Fungus that Is Hard to Beat in Court


Heaven Hill maturation warehouse at the former Beam and Hart Old Tub Distillery (c. 1892), on Old Nazareth Road near Bardstown.

This is Part 7 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.

In 2016, the federal Baudoinia compniacensis lawsuit against Diageo, filed by Louisville personal injury lawyer William F. McMurry on behalf of business owner Bruce Merrick and several Louisville citizens, was dismissed at the request of all parties. Both sides stated that no settlement had been reached and everyone would pay their own legal fees and other costs. 

The Merrick lawsuit had claimed Diageo was responsible for the black fungus that blanketed homes and businesses near Stitzel-Weller.

Diageo argued it should not be held responsible because it was free to release ethanol under the federal government's Clean Air Act. McMurry argued the plaintiffs could sue under the state's nuisance law, which could be used to protect citizens against air pollution.

As part of the dismissal, all parties agreed not to discuss the suit, nor explain why it was dropped. The most likely explanation is that it became clear to plaintiffs that the big payday they hoped for was not coming.

About one year later, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that George Miller, a Louisville property owner who sued Brown-Forman and Heaven Hill for property damage caused by Baudoinia, could pursue his state tort claims for damages, but it rejected his demand for injunctive relief that would require distillers to adopt a particular type of unproven pollution-control technology not required under Brown-Forman's and Heaven Hill's permits from the LAPCD. The Court remanded the case to the Circuit Court for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. 

Although the Supreme Court said the damages claim could continue, it didn’t. To collect, Miller had to prove actual damages, prove Baudoinia caused them, and prove the company’s ethanol emissions caused the fungus. It is likely the value of provable damages was not great enough to justify the expense of continuing the suit.

In the current Jack Daniel’s case, the novelty is that the plaintiff is not suing Jack Daniel’s parent company Brown-Forman. She is suing Tennessee's Lincoln County for wrongly issuing the building permits.

Just because lawsuits don’t seem to stick, that doesn’t mean the fungus issue is going away. It continues to be a public relations problem for distillers.

It is hard to wrap your head around the amount of space a large producer needs for whiskey maturation. A standard whiskey barrel holds 53 gallons, is about three feet long, a little more than two feet in diameter, and weighs about 500 pounds when full. Now imagine 50 of them, 1,000, 20,000, a million.

In 2021, Kentucky's distillers filled 2.6 million barrels. As of January, 2022, there were about 11.4 million barrels in Kentucky maturation warehouses. Tennessee has about 3.5 million. That's about 750 million gallons, the same amount of industrial alcohol the American distilled spirits industry produced for all of WWII.

Maturation warehouses in Canada are a little different. Instead of racks, barrels are stored on pallets, standing up, moved around by forklifts, and rarely age more than three years. In all cases, though, maturation warehouses are big, there are a lot of them, and they contain enormous amounts of alcohol, hundreds of millions of gallons. 

Worldwide demand for American whiskey keeps increasing with no end in sight. The fastest growing segment is premium whiskey, which can take twice as long to mature as the standard product, so typically eight years instead of four.

Most large producers have multiple warehouses on their distillery campus. In some cases, 40 or more. Each warehouse holds between 20,000 and 50,000 barrels. At least one 100,000-barrel warehouse has been built. In addition to warehouses at the distillery, most producers have several off-campus stand-alone maturation facilities too. 

The Lebanon Enterprise is the local newspaper for Lebanon, Kentucky, county seat of Marion County. Also in Marion, near the smaller town of Loretto, is the Maker’s Mark Distillery, which is owned by Beam Suntory. Maker's has maturation warehouses at the distillery and in Loretto itself, at the site of the former Loretto Distillery. Maker's always has had warehouses there, but has added more.

In 2018, the Enterprise reported that Maker’s Mark CEO Rob Samuels spoke to a joint meeting of the Marion County Fiscal Court and the Lebanon City Council about the distillery’s plan to build ten new warehouses in or near Lebanon, at a site to be determined.

Maker’s Mark asked for industrial revenue bonds for the project, which the county gave it in 2012 for its new warehouses in Loretto. If the county approved, the company would receive a benefit worth millions of dollars. Marion County residents took the meeting as an opportunity to express their concerns about the further spread of Baudoinia in the county. Several Loretto residents came to warn their Lebanon neighbors based on their experiences. 

In an editorial after that meeting, Enterprise publisher Stevie Lowery wrote, “Right now, many residents feel that Loretto has been ignored by the distillery. Loretto is ‘just a road to get there,’ so to speak.  And, now, that road and everything near it is turning black from the warehouse fungus.” 

A pattern, it seems, has been established. A producer plans a new distillery or maturation facility. It seeks permission and, usually, financial incentives from the appropriate government bodies, which hold public hearings. The company and the government want to talk about economic development, but the public only wants to talk about fungus.

NEXT TIME: Baudoinia-panic kills a major Tennessee facility.


Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Baudoinia: the Fungus Is a Bad Neighbor


This demolition-in-progress in Louisville shows a maturation warehouse's internal honeycomb structure.

This is Part 6 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.

Because the warehouses at Stitzel-Weller emptied out after production was moved to the new Bernheim Distillery, Baudoinia compniacensis, the whiskey fungus, wasn't an issue there for most of the 1990s. Little was going on and it appeared the facility might be closed or sold. Then a growing Maker’s Mark began to rent warehouse space at Stitzel-Weller. Maker’s also revived the barrel dumping facility, rather than truck mature barrels back to Loretto. 

After it sold Bernheim to Heaven Hill in 1999, Diageo began to buy distillate for its limited bourbon needs and began to refill the Stitzel-Weller warehouses. The warehouses at Bernheim were emptied and that whiskey was either sold or moved to Stitzel-Weller. 

When Diageo acquired Bulleit after Seagram's was broken up that whiskey, distilled at Four Roses, was aged at Stitzel-Weller too.

Because its Tennessee warehouses were full, Diageo brought barrels of bourbon distilled at George Dickel to Stitzel-Weller for aging, in violation of Tennessee law. After Diageo assured Tennessee officials that the whiskey stored in Kentucky was bourbon and would not be returned to Tennessee and sold as Tennessee whiskey, they were let off with a slap on the wrist.

Aging capacity at Stitzel-Weller is about 400,000 barrels. Although the stills had been silent since 1992, suddenly the place was buzzing again as the 21st century dawned.

Because zoning in Shively was always willy-nilly, there is little separation between industrial, commercial, and residential land use. What was farmland in 1933 is now densely developed, and there is a large neighborhood of modest, single-family homes just southwest of the Stitzel-Weller property. 

As the barrel inventory there declined in the 80s and 90s, so inevitably did the amount of Baudoinia compniacensis growing on neighboring property. People forgot about it. Homes were sold, and new people moved in who had never scrubbed the black soot off their garage doors.

The 2011 Wired Magazine article about James Scott and his research at Hiram Walker gave Stitzel-Weller’s neighbors a name for their pain. One of them contacted William F. McMurry, a personal-injury lawyer in Louisville best known for his suits on behalf of victims of sex abuse by Catholic priests. 

McMurry soon filed a class-action lawsuit against the three distilleries near Shively—Diageo, Brown-Forman, and Heaven Hill—claiming their negligence was responsible for the town's property damage. McMurry argued that the fungus depressed the value of affected property to the tune of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of dollars.

The distillers answered, as they always have, that the fungus is naturally occurring, and their ethanol emissions are permitted under The Clean Air Act. 

The 2012 LAPCD notice to Diageo cited odor complaints and Baudoinia growth. The district even added the following statement to its web site, though it was quickly removed. 

“The presence of ethanol odors directly correlates with the rapid growth of Baudoinia compniacensis. While Baudoinia compniacensis is a naturally occurring mold, it is normally slow growing and eclipsed by other faster producing molds. However, when it is introduced to ethanol-rich environments, such as that surrounding a whiskey aging warehouse, it becomes uncharacteristically fast growing, resilient and adaptive to many environments. Thus, where whiskey aging warehouses exist, so will Baudoinia compniacensis.”

The warehouses at Stitzel-Weller are and always have been painted dark brown.

It is not unusual for whiskey to be aged somewhere other than where it was distilled. At a wide spot in the road near Bardstown called Coxs Creek, Four Roses has a maturation facility, but no distillery. Their distillery is in Lawrenceburg. Wild Turkey has rackhouses at the former Old Joe Distillery across the street from Four Roses Distillery, and also at the site of the former E. J. Curley Distillery in Jessamine County. All three facilities have been in use for decades. Beam, Heaven Hill, and Maker’s Mark also have stand-alone maturation facilities, typically at defunct distilleries. 

Recently, producers have been building more stand-alones. Heaven Hill has a one on an isolated parcel near Coxs Creek, just east of U.S. Route 150 (Louisville Road). 

Historically in communities where either distilleries or stand-alone maturation facilities are proposed, producers seek tax relief and other incentives from local governments, which usually consider whiskey production a good economic development investment. Sometimes opposition comes from neo-prohibitionists, but jobs and taxes usually carry the day. Since 2012, public concern about Baudoinia, whether warranted or not, has threatened the industry's growth and perhaps the industry itself.

Although there is no evidence Baudoinia is a health threat, and a great deal of evidence it is not, these days it takes more than facts to keep people from claiming all sorts of dangers. Better to simply avoid the problem by keeping Baudoinia on company grounds, which is what producers are increasingly trying to do. 

NEXT TIME: More nerdy legal stuff.


Saturday, April 1, 2023

Baudoinia: the Fungus with a Drinking Problem


Maturation warehouses at Stitzel-Weller in Louisville.

This is Part 5 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.

Baudoinia compniacensis isn’t dangerous, but it is weird. Researchers have observed that ethanol exposure early in the plant's life stimulates the formation of protective ‘heat shock proteins’ that confer heat resistance, allowing the mold to survive on hot metal walls exposed to direct sunlight. This gives it an advantage over competitors. That advantage seems to continue even after the available ethanol vapor declines.

Here is another mystery. You might expect interior surfaces of warehouses, especially whiskey barrels themselves, to be thick with the stuff, but they aren’t. It always has been more prevalent on exterior surfaces. No one knows why.

Baudoinia is harmless, to humans and other animals as well as to crops and other plant life. It is most noticeable on the trunks of trees and walls of buildings. People who work at distilleries or live nearby have been exposed to it for generations and no ill-effects have been reported. Trees and other plants on which it grows don’t seem to mind. They grow normally.

Many producers of aged spirits simply paint their buildings dark colors, making the ‘soot’ less noticeable. Dark-colored warehouses also have hotter interiors on sunny days, which is good for the whiskey. Some clean Baudoinia from affected buildings, but most don’t bother. 

Although Baudoinia can be removed from most surfaces with soap and water, it usually comes back. Common antifungal remedies like copper and zinc salts deter it in the short-term. Since Baudoinia is spread by air movement, it is theorized that planting trees and other plants around warehouses will reduce its spread. Since it seems to thrive even in areas where the amount of ethanol in the air is low, more research needs to be done to determine ethanol’s exact role in the plant’s life cycle. 

No one appears to be actively researching Baudoinia today. University mycologists visit distilleries to experience it firsthand, as a group from Ohio State did at Buffalo Trace in 2016, but no major new research is underway. Neither the Distilled Spirits Council nor the Kentucky Distillers Association has an official position on Baudoinia, let alone a research program. Consensus in the industry, if people will talk about it at all, is that Baudoinia is a natural and harmless plant, and not a problem. 

They would rather not discuss the negative PR.

In Kentucky and Tennessee, as whiskey sales have increased over the last two decades, more and more whiskey maturation warehouses have been built and existing sites that were unused or under-used during bourbon’s down years are once again full. More whiskey in more warehouses has led to more Baudoinia, in neighborhoods where it never was, or hasn't been for 30 or 40 years, which is effectively the same thing. 

The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 set off a distillery building boom much like the one going on now. In Louisville, most of the new distilleries were built south of downtown in the then-tiny suburb of Shively. They located there because land was cheap, taxes were low, water was clean, and municipal authorities were more malleable there than in much larger Louisville. 

Shively was mostly farmland in 1933, but after WWII, housing began to fill in the areas that weren’t already occupied by distilleries and other industrial facilities.

Stitzel-Weller, the distillery built by Pappy Van Winkle at the corner of Ralph Avenue and Fitzgerald Road in 1934, was one of the finest. As became the norm after Prohibition, everything was there in one location: distillery, offices, bottling, distribution, and maturation. 

Distilling stopped at Stitzel-Weller in 1992 when the rebuilt Bernheim Distillery opened. Bottling left too, sent to Diageo facilities in Illinois and elsewhere. But unlike most Shively distilleries, Stitzel-Weller was never shuttered and is largely intact.  

As the whiskey stored there aged out, it wasn’t replaced. Bernheim had its own maturation warehouses. By the late 1990s, the Stitzel-Weller warehouses were nearly empty, and little was going on. Because so few people worked there, there wasn’t much security, and a tacky chain link fence was erected. The place looked, and was, virtually abandoned. An eventual shutdown and sale seemed likely.

NEXT TIME: The Bourbon Boom cometh.