Tucked away in the rolling bourbon soaked hills of northern Kentucky, the trees around the Jim Beam distillery grounds are unique. In terms of species, they are no different than the trees that surround their hilltop. There are stately white oaks, spindly ashes, maples, and solid sycamores just like those in the hollows below. Their leaves, acorns and all other vegetative growth are remarkably average and they are taking on a tinge of autumn gold in the October air just like all the other trees. They cast a normal pawl of light shade over the bronze statue of Booker Noe that stands adjacent to the old homestead. The thing that sets them apart is the peculiar darkness of their bark. These are black barked trees.
This feature is not apparent at first. This should be no surprise, of course, because normally folks come to this distillery to tour and to drink whiskey – not stare at trees. Our party missed the last tour of the day but we did manage to sneak into the final bourbon tasting at the visitor center – a large red barn emblazoned with “Jim Beam” on the gable end. Probably due to the sinus and sense clearing effects of the product, we were made aware of the unique blackness of the trees as we exited the building. Actually, I am not ashamed to admit that it was my daughter’s boyfriend Adam who first pointed this out. There was still a thin veil over my eyes from the thimble full of whiskey recently imbibed, but 90 proof is 90 proof, if you know what I mean.
At any rate Adam wondered out loud if the large oak next to the statue was some type of exotic such as an English Black Oak or something on account of its black bark. On closer look it turned out to be a regular old native white oak, however it looked to be completely charred as if in a fire (see above). Since this charring extended to every little twig on every branch, this had to be ruled out. White Oaks are called white oaks because of the lightness of their bark. Black oaks have dark bark, and thus their name, but this was a black white oak (as opposed to a black & white oak).
Soon it became apparent that every tree trunk in the vicinity was nearly as black as coal. The nearby specimen of Sycamore, a tree species which normally exhibits a patchwork of olive green and cream, instead looked like a black and white photo of itself (see above). No, there was something in the air causing this. Perhaps it was something bad – something dark and polluted – or it was something else. In short, it was something else.
The blackness was caused by a harmless fungus called Baudonia cominia…er, comeniace…never mind, let’s just call it Black Fungus. This particular type is unique to distilleries (as well as a few commercial bakeries) throughout the world. In Europe, specifically Cognac France where it was first described, it is simply called “warehouse staining” because it coats the rocky walls of the dark storage cellars. The fungus thrives in the vicinity of alcohol vapor and humidity and therefore sprouts around places where fermentation is going on.
Specifically, black fungus grows where the fermentation product is aged in oaken barrels. The barrels breathe over time and, as the Jim Beam tour guides would have likely told us had we of attended, up to 30% of the alcohol contained in the whiskey is lost to the atmosphere over the years through evaporation. This is affectionately called the “angels share” in the trade. It is this airborne ethanol that stimulates fungal germination and provides some additional heat protective proteins to the organisms. I, of course, did not just make all this up; I got it from several sources including a fine article by Bernard Dixon in Microbe Magazine. You can probably look over a copy of this rag at your local dentist office underneath that pile of old Highlight magazines.
So, the combination of tree bark, humid climate, and ambient alcohol creates a lush field of growth for those mysterious black bark fungi found on Jim Beam hill. In a microscopic view this fungus looks like a string of simple beads or pearls. At an eyeball distance it appears as a crusty coating (see below and detail here). At a greater foot distance, it appears like ink staining.
Old man Noe, the grandson of the original Jim Beam, seems to know that there is something in the air about his place. To the trees and the local angels goes 30% of that something and to the humans goes the rest.