08/31/2012 08:13 am ET Updated Sep 13, 2012

Whiskey Fungus Lawsuit: Louisville Residents Sue Five Major Bourbon Distilleries

A black, sooty gunk is at the heart of a new class-action lawsuit filed against five major bourbon whiskey distilleries by residents and business owners in and around Louisville, Kentucky.

Baudoinia, a type of fungus recently identified by scientists, is everywhere in Louisville. Although the stuff has had a ubiquitous presence for decades, plaintiffs recently filed a suit in June claiming the distilleries -- Brown-Forman (Jack Daniels), Diageo (Bulleit), Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace and Jim Beam -- were negligent and are responsible for significant property damage throughout the area.

The New York Times reports that the naturally-occuring Baudoinia thrives on ethanol, a clear alcohol that can evaporate during fermentation, "making the area around whiskey-aging warehouses a prime breeding ground." Distillers call the ethanol released into the environment the "angel's share," but plaintiffs says the stuff coats cars, houses and everything in between and is expensive and difficult to remove.

William F. McMurry, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs in Louisville, plans to file a similar suit in Scotland, where Baudoinia is also a common problem. McMurry told the Times that he wants the distillers ordered to “stop off-gasing ethanol," adding, “This is not going to affect their bottom line and the flavor of whiskey.”

In a joint statement, Brown-Forman, Diageo and Heaven Hill countered that they're not responsible for a natural growth:

While we are sympathetic to the concerns of the plaintiffs, the blackening of some buildings and other structures is due to a naturally occurring common mold that is found widely throughout the environment, including in areas unrelated to the production of whiskey ... The companies involved do not believe that they have caused any harm to the plaintiffs or their property, and we will vigorously contest these claims.

The remaining two distilleries did not comment.

The 2007 study identifying the fungus revealed that Baudoinia was "reported originally from the walls of buildings near brandy maturation warehouses in Cognac, France" and are the result of "large diurnal temperature shifts, episodic high relative humidity and wetting, and ambient airborne ethanol."



The World's Most Expensive Wine and Spirits