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FRED FIRST: A Whiskey Fungus Among Us

Ethanol fumes create a black coating like a bad dream

One hundred and fifty years ago, an unexpected “plague of soot” appeared near distilleries worldwide, leaving black coatings on houses, trees, glass, metal, brick and mortar. This phenomenon, known as “warehouse staining,” was scientifically described for the first time in 1881.

Heaven Hill distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky, US, where fungus is visible on the white warehouses. Source: Wikipedia

It continues today–to grow, to stain and to perplex. Woe be to your patio furniture, road signs, and expensive automobiles–up to a mile away from the whiskey warehouse. (Could this be why Jack Daniels created the BLACK label?)

THE SOURCE

Especially near where high-alcohol products are allowed to age in wooden casks, the “soot” is pervasive, and difficult to remove. Entire towns need to be power-washed. The source: the Angel’s Share. This is the name for the volatile spirits–up to 2% of the volume of liquor—that are outgassed through the barrels. The lost vapors waft downwind, somehow causing the appearance of a rough inky smudge on any available surface.

WE NOW KNOW THAT THIS STUFF IS ALIVE.

The scientific name, recently conferred (2011) is Baudoinia compniacensis. And it is a fungus. The good news is that it appears to have no human health impact. And yet, if your white vinyl siding goes to 50 shades of gray, your health just might be the worse for it.

The go-to guy is James Scott, a mycologist whose wide-ranging investigations are helping to understand the distribution and biology of this fungus (which is actually a related group of DNA types.) He was able to find samples to study by finding the black stains on distilleries using Google Earth!

This article in Wired is a good read …

Unraveling the Mystery of the Canadian Whiskey Fungus | Wired 2011

Photomicrograph of colony growing on Modified Leonian’s agar. Source:Wikipedia
Scott cultures this rough, dark celled fungus in a dilute cocktail mixed by adding a jigger of whiskey (shaken not stirred) to a liter of agar. And as he was able to purify his cultures to study just a certain one of the so-called sooty molds. It turns out that he had cultured an organism not yet named, so he gave credit, not to himself, but to pharmacist Antonin Baudoin, the director of the French Distillers’ Association in 1880.

A Fungal Nobody Living in Paradise

First, yes, Baudoinia (and its several subtypes) is found in “the wild” and has lived as just another sooty mold, unnoticed for millions of years until man came along and created this fungus’s “own bespoke micro-paradise.”

But elsewhere in nature too, it may benefit from the ethanol from rotting fruit or the metabolic gases given off by naturally-occurring yeasts, which are abundant in the wild.

Granted, this ancient, simple organism is not much to look at, and only their DNA distinguishes one subtype from the others. This is not a cuddly-cute creature, but it is a recently successful one, having put to good use this novel, sudden bonanza of growth-promoting ethanol gas. Who would have thought!

Some rowdies may think that enough Jack Daniels Black will make them super-men. Not! But it surely does make Baudoinia a super-fungus—an EXTREMOPHILE, really, capable of super-fungal feats!

From Wikipedia

– Fred First

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