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Residents who live near Jack Daniels distilleries have to deal with whiskey fungus

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

While having Jack Daniel's distilleries as a neighbor might sound like an awesome thing, it has turned into quite a hassle for thousands of rural residents in both Tennessee and Kentucky. The problem is whiskey fungus. Yeah, you heard that right - fungus that is growing on trees and homes nearby.

Janet Patton, who reports for the Lexington Herald Leader, joins us now. Hi there.

JANET PATTON: Hi. Thanks so much for having me on.

CHANG: Well, thanks for being with us. OK. What is whiskey fungus anyway?

PATTON: It's probably been around as long as man has made alcohol and stored it. What it grows on, what it really loves about the distilleries, is the alcohol vapor that comes off of the aging barrels, which is sometimes called the angel's share because as the barrel evaporates alcohol, the alcohol inside the barrel gets less and less. So they call that the angel's share, the share the angel's get.

CHANG: Right.

PATTON: It's this black fungus that grows almost any surface (ph). It's very, very common. It grows on trees. It grows on walls. It grows, here in Kentucky, on street signs, on people's houses, on playground equipment.

CHANG: And you said it's black. What else about it? Like, what's the texture like? What does it smell like?

PATTON: Well, it doesn't really smell like anything, I don't think. But I'm told it's very sticky. It's very hard to get off houses. In central Kentucky, where we have a lot of bourbon distilleries, people become familiar with this. They sometimes have to pressure wash their houses once or twice a year to just get this stuff off.

CHANG: Wow. Well, what has the company, Jack Daniel's, said so far about this problem? Like, are they offering to help with it at all?

PATTON: Jack Daniel's has said they are cooperating. And right now in Tennessee, a woman who owns a wedding venue has sued and gotten the zoning board to stop construction of a new warehouse, at least temporarily. And Jack Daniel's, which is owned by Brown-Forman in Louisville, says they're cooperating. But they don't really seem too enthusiastic about the idea of mitigating the alcohol vapor, which has been the demand for a lot of the communities in central Kentucky who have been having these zoning fights to stop the big campuses of brick houses, which is what the barrel warehouses are called, from cropping up in their neighborhoods.

CHANG: Well, I imagine that there's some tension between, you know, the jobs that Jack Daniel's brings to the community versus all the fungus that's really bothering that same community.

PATTON: Yeah. It's definitely a tension because these are communities that rely on this major employer, and they're seen as a real economic boon. Usually, officials are pretty welcoming. They really want these things because they bring a lot of economic gains to the community. But in the last year, in three Kentucky counties, there's been this pushback against expansions. So I think the tension is definitely growing.

CHANG: So is there any kind of filter or other way to slow down the spread of this fungus?

PATTON: Actually, there is. In California, where the issue isn't whiskey fungus but air quality, they have put onto distilleries and warehouses for aging brandy a system that collects all of the alcohol vapor and then burns it off. You know, I think that citizens would like to see these kinds of systems put into place here as well if the expense can be covered.

CHANG: Janet Patton from the Lexington Herald Leader. Thank you very much.

PATTON: Oh, you're welcome. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEJON STREET CORNER THIEVES SONG, "WHISKEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.