Moonshine and Fungus

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October 10, 2012 by Bourbon Empire

Years ago Kentucky’s playful old souls decided to use the term “angels’ share” for whiskey that evaporated from barrels as they aged. These vapors provide a wonderful aroma but also contain ethanol, which promotes the growth of a mostly harmless black fungus that often covers rackhouses and other objects in the vicinity of ageing whiskey.

Four Roses Rackhouse

During a recent tour of one distillery, the guide told my group that federal officers used to look for the fungus in order to find illegal moonshiners, who were forced to regularly move their operations in order to evade detection. An exciting story, but probably untrue. Old-time moonshiners spent most of their time distilling whiskey, not ageing it. Building giant warehouses where whiskey would sit for years probably wasn’t in their purview. Regardless, this story shows how the murky records of bourbon’s history contribute to distilleries’ ability to create a sense of legend and lore around this enduring American product. And honestly, the occasional stretching of the truth sort of adds to bourbon’s charm.

The Louisville-Courier Journal and New York Times have recently run stories on this fungus, named baudoinia compniacensis. The boom in bourbon production over the past few years has meant more fungus in an expanding area, including local neighborhoods. A group of Kentucky residents has responded by filing class-action lawsuits against local distilleries. That seems a bit extreme, not to mention it’s probably not a great idea to go after one of Kentucky’s few remaining industries, especially when the fungus has been a common presence in the area for over 100 years, and is easily removed with a little soap and water.

Even if federal agents didn’t use it to sniff out bootleggers whipping up popskull in them thar’ hills, it looks like enterprising lawyers are now using it to go after another kind of fortune. Let’s hope all the excessive drama ends soon.

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