Thursday, July 5, 2018

Some Perspective on the Barton Warehouse Collapse

Two weeks ago, we told you about the partial collapse of Warehouse 30 at the Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky. Yesterday, not surprisingly, the rest of it came down. The photographs and videos are certainly dramatic, approximately 18,000 barrels of whiskey, each one holding 53 gallons and weighing 500 pounds, in a massive pile, with pieces of the roof and other debris scattered about.

No one was injured in either collapse.

The story is all over social media and many people are blowing it way out of proportion. Obviously, it is a bad accident, but it doesn't imperil Sazerac, the distillery's owner, nor will it have a significant impact on the industry as a whole. It is a drop in the bucket. There are currently 6,657,063 barrels of whiskey aging in Kentucky. The barrels affected in this incident represent about 1/3 of 1% of that total, and that's just in Kentucky. There are a few million more aging in Tennessee, Indiana, and other states.

Although they are rare, events like this do happen. As a precaution, every warehouse contains a mix of different products at different ages, mitigating the impact of accidents on inventory planning.

Sazerac, America's third largest whiskey producer, won't miss a beat.

The warehouse was about 80 years old. It was a wooden structure, covered with a thin steel skin. While the exact cause has not been determined, it isn't hard to figure out the factors that may have been involved: an old, wooden building; a very wet spring, and a tremendous amount of weight. These things happen from time to time. The most unusual fact about this incident is that there wasn't a fire. There usually is a fire.

As it is, the biggest concern is keeping whiskey from smashed or leaking barrels from getting into the creeks that surround the site, which all empty into the Beech Fork River. If you watch one of the longer videos, you can see there is a massive earthmoving operation going on at the base of the hill, creating a barrier to keep the alcohol out of the stream.

After the initial collapse, the Kentucky Environmental Protection Agency reported that approximately 500 fish were killed. When alcohol gets into a waterway, algae feed on it and deplete the water of oxygen. The fish die of asphyxiation.

After a warehouse at Wild Turkey collapsed and burned in May of 2000, officials of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources announced that a 28-mile-long 'dead zone' was floating down the Kentucky River with the current, killing everything in its path. It was the worst fish kill in Kentucky history. About 227,000 fish died, including paddlefish, catfish, shiner minnows, spoonbills, carp, gar and saugers. Wild Turkey was assessed and paid a large fine.

As you can see from the pictures, many of the barrels appear to be intact. They are made from white oak, which is pretty stout stuff. There are no estimates yet as to how many can be salvaged, and the effort will take a long time. Barrels will literally have to be removed one by one, probably using some kind of crane to avoid disturbing the pile.

There probably were distilleries on the Barton 1792 site before 1876, but that was the year Tom Moore and Ben Mattingly established the Mattingly & Moore Distillery there, with financial help from John Willett, Mattingly's father-in-law. Moore's mother was a Willett too, so it was all in the family. In 1879. Moore established the Tom Moore Distillery right next door and that is the plant that eventually became Barton. (The year 1792, which is the name of the distillery's flagship product, is the year Kentucky became a U.S. state. It otherwise has no significance to the history of the distillery.)

Barton is pretty ideally situated on the edge of Bardstown. The distillery itself is in the valley, at the spring. Most of the warehouses are on a high plateau above it, to maximize air circulation. Although a small part of one original building was incorporated into the distillery, most of it was built in the 1940s. Sazerac bought it in January of 2009. Sazerac also owns the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, and a maturation and bottling operation in Owensboro at the site of the Glenmore Distillery.

Although this accident is surely unfortunate, and the clean-up will be costly and time consuming, everything and everyone is going to be just fine.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article.
I'll be looking in the stores for "Warehouse Collapse Rescue Bourbon" at 200 bucks a pop.

Anonymous said...

In other industries, e.g. petroleum refining, there are rare mishaps as well. But, in those industries it is unthinkable to design a storage facility without secondary containment berms. Given that we can expect whiskey warehouses to continue to be built and operated by us fallible humans, would it make sense to do the earthmoving in advance? Even if it's not required as it is in other industries, would some aggressive landscaping be worth it to reduce the risk of fines? Are whiskey warehouses and their contents insured? If so, how proactive are insurers about inspecting the condition of the property? Would secondary containment berms, especially ones that could prevent a fire from spreading from one building to another, significantly affect insurance premiums?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Some distilleries (e.g., Jack Daniel's) have berms around their warehouses. Others don't. I'm not sure why some do and some don't, but most don't. Obviously, they all have risk managers and insurance companies, who usually are quite scrupulous about mitigating risk.

Anonymous said...

You will note the prominent berm around the large Wild Turkey warehouse that sits close to Hwy 62, just across the river in Anderson County. They learned their lesson I guess. Come to think of it though, I do not recall a berm around the new warehouse across the road on Tyrone Pike.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Rest assured that these issues are not ignored by the distilleries or their insurers.

Anonymous said...

But the fish died happy! Really, they died of asphyxiation instead of toxic inebriation/ poisoning? Or maybe its just spin- you know, asphyxiation is more Kentucky PC than "death by alcohol poisoning"?

Tommy tom said...

It is unfortunate that wood boring insects can degrade the strength of warehouse support structures over time. However, powder post beetles may add complexity to the taste profile of the liquid aged for over 6 -7 years, adding notes of honey, caramel and vanilla.

mozilla said...

The warehouse didn't just contain also contained brandy.

Those warehouses were unique in that they are multistory and were subject to leaning if barrels weren't loaded or unloaded to evenly distribute the remaining weight. If I remember correctly...Barton used to use a string hung from the top of the warehouse...down one of the help the warehouse workers know if the building was leaning or starting to lean.

Unknown said...

I would love to volunteer with the clean-up. What size glass should I bring?

Anonymous said...

This accident could make for a marketing opportunity of the salvaged whiskey. With limited supply, could be a collector's edition.