The sooty-looking black gunk has been here for as long as anyone can remember, creeping on the outside of homes, spreading over porch furniture, blanketing car roofs, mysterious and ever-present.
It was pollution, residents speculated, or maybe something to do with the industrial riverfront. But it turns out the most likely culprit is Kentucky’s signature product, its liquid pride: whiskey, as in bourbon whiskey, distilled and bottled across the city and nearby countryside.
In 2007, researchers published a scientific study about Baudoinia, a newly identified type of fungus. Naturally occurring, Baudoinia germinates on ethanol, the colorless alcohol that can evaporate during fermentation, making the area around whiskey-aging warehouses a prime breeding ground.
News of this whiskey fungus soon rippled across spirit-producing communities from Cognac to Canada — a mystery solved, and an opportunity found.
In June, home and business owners in and around Louisville, part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, filed class-action lawsuits in federal and circuit courts against five major distilleries, charging property damage and negligence. In September, with the help of lawyers in Britain, the plaintiffs’ Louisville lawyer, William F. McMurry, plans to bring a similar suit in Scotland, where the fungus is so rampant that it almost seems like part of the architecture.
“Every distillery that we’ve tested has had it, as far as I know,” said James Scott, the University of Toronto mycologist who helped identify and name Baudoinia.
Mr. McMurry wants the courts to order distillers to simply “stop off-gasing ethanol,” he said, adding: “This is not going to affect their bottom line and the flavor of whiskey.”
Distillers beg to differ, saying they are not liable for a natural growth that, not incidentally, has covered their own buildings for centuries. (“Warehouse staining” was observed in Cognac, France, in 1870.) And even for plaintiffs, the case has proved divisive in a place where whiskey is a main economic engine, a tourism booster and a way of life.
Hmm… if it’s triggered by a whiff of ethanol does it take off around orchards and anywhere there’s ripe fruit, for example? Could windfall fruit in people’s gardens also be a ‘culprit’? Could organic gardeners be liable for the ethanol given off by overripe fruit in the compost heap? Could this result in composting being banned? There’s no known health problem involved and no such accusation so people who moved into the area had opportunity to decide whether they wanted to live where mold discoloration is an obvious problem. Got to say I’m very dubious about the wisdom of such a suit.