Friday, September 4, 2015

Cool Video, Old News

This video is all over the internet today. It's amazing, well worth watching, but it's not news, and much of what is being said about it is wrong.

First, it happened in 2003, twelve years ago. Second, lightning didn't ignite a 'leak from the factory,' as many outlets reported. Lightning struck a warehouse, at least that's the conclusion reached by investigators at the time. It couldn't have been a 'leak from the factory' because the two Beam distilleries are each about 15 miles from where this occurred, at a separate maturation facility just north of Bardstown off Withrow Court. The lake into which the burning whiskey flowed is a man-made retention pond. I don't believe there was a significant fish kill from the event, as some have reported.

Fire is a constant threat at whiskey distilleries and maturation facilities due to the combustible combination of wood and high proof alcohol. This particular warehouse was relatively small, containing about 800,000 gallons of whiskey. The ones they're building now hold more than twice that much, but they also have better fire controls. Beam has 72 maturation warehouses at various locations in Nelson, Bullitt and Franklin Counties, a few more than it did in 2003.

This location has been particularly unlucky. In 1968, before Beam owned it, another fire destroyed a warehouse there. It was still a distillery then. The other buildings were saved but the distillery closed the next year anyway. Beam bought the site to replace some warehouses it lost to a tornado in 1974.

If a warehouse starts to burn, about all firefighters can do is try to keep it from spreading. It can't be extinguished. Some barrels explode, sending others flying through the air. You don't see it here, but usually the flames are blue, like an alcohol lamp.

The first distillery at that particular location, known as S. P. Lancaster, was built in 1881. Like many distilleries built at that time, the location was chosen to take advantage of the newly-built Bardstown-Springfield Branch of the L&N Railroad. Like many Kentucky distilleries, it changed names often. It was variously known as Independent, Shawhan, and Waterfill & Frazier.

Beam had a fire at another site in 2007. Wild Turkey had one in 2000. (That one, by the Kentucky River, did have a significant fish kill.) The worst one on record was at Heaven Hill in 1996, which destroyed the distillery and seven warehouses. The Cummins-Collins Distillery in Athertonville had a bad one in 1972. Barton had a bad one in 1944. Both of those were in the distillery itself.

During Prohibition, a distillery at Elkhorn Forks near Frankfort, built in 1901 by John D. Hinde, was destroyed in a fire. Arson was suspected. The event was fictionalized in Irwin Cobb’s 1929 novel, Red Likker. After Repeal, a new distillery was built there by Kenner Taylor, son of E.H. Taylor of Old Taylor fame. It eventually became Old Grand-Dad. Today it is owned by Jim Beam and used for maturation and bottling.


Josh Feldman said...

Terrific post, Chuck. Thanks for the information, background, and history.

Oscar said...

I see that the video that Chuck posted has been deleted.
Here is another link where you can view the fire.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Thanks, Oscar. I updated the link.

Dan B said...

Hi Chuck,

I did a little research and here are some links to news articles from the time of the event.

Apparently there was a large fish kill and Beam was very helpful with local authorities in righting what they could and paying the state fines for lost sport fishing revenues. Seems the actual event caught the eye of news less than the repost generation of today. Perhaps proving that geeks (the general public was still warming up to the internet) drink more beer than bourbon; their loss.

-- Dan

Sam Komlenic said...

An amazingly detailed account of an early 20th century warehouse fire at the Overholt distillery at Broad Ford, PA can be found here:

Page down a bit to get to the description from the local paper, which talks about what a tourist attraction the actual fire became in a very short amount of time.

Broad Ford, named for a shallow spot in the Youghiogheny River where first the Indians and then Washington crossed, was pretty much a company town, and has disappeared. The distillery is mostly gone, but the label lives on at your local liquor store or bar.