Crews let a Jim Beam bourbon warehouse in Woodford County burn out Wednesday after it caught fire overnight, ruining thousands of barrels that leaked bourbon into a nearby creek and the Kentucky River.
The fire at the Jim Beam warehouse began about 11:30 p.m. Tuesday and burned for “double-digit” hours Wednesday while firefighters protected nearby warehouses and crews tried to prevent bourbon from flowing into a creek, according to Drew Chandler, the Woodford County Emergency Management director.
Jim Beam said in a prepared statement that the fire will not affect product availability.
“We operate 126 barrel warehouses in Kentucky that hold approximately 3.3 million barrels for our brands, and the warehouse that was destroyed contained 45,000 barrels of relatively young whiskey from the Jim Beam mash bill. Given the age of the lost whiskey, this fire will not impact the availability of Jim Beam for consumers.”
About 45,000 barrels amounts to 1.89 million gallons of bourbon. The barrels were aging in storage, which allows the taste of the bourbon to mature.
There was hope that flames would destroy the distilled spirit in the barrels, stopping runoff and contamination in nearby Glenns Creek. In addition, Woodford Feed delivered sand requested by firefighters to build embankments to prevent leakage into the creek, Chandler said.
But some bourbon found the water.
John Mura, a state Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesperson, said, “there was some material that entered the creek and it is surely already in the Kentucky River.”
A large amount of fish could die due to lowered oxygen levels in the river, he said.
It is not known how much bourbon was in the water, but efforts to stop further contamination paid off, Mura said.
The state put a boat on the river to monitor water quality, and effects from the spill likely won’t be known for at least 24 hours, Mura said.
Fighting the fire and dealing with associated problems took about 75 firefighters from Woodford and Franklin counties and the cities of Lexington, Winchester and Versailles, Chandler said. They also sprayed nearby buildings to keep them cool. In addition to the destroyed warehouse, a nearby shed was damaged in the fire, and a tractor-trailer was a total loss, he said.
In its statement, Jim Beam said it was thankful for the “courageous firefighters” who prevented the fire from spreading and thankful no one was injured.
“We have a comprehensive warehouse safety program that includes regular inspections and rigorous protocols to promote safety and the security of our aging inventory,” the company said.
For much of the day Wednesday, the “site was too hot to allow an investigator in to determine the cause of the fire, Chandler said. “ We heard there was lightning in the area but we have no way of confirming that. “
The National Weather Service confirmed Wednesday morning there were rain showers in the vicinity of the fire Tuesday night and “a few” lightning strikes were recorded along the Franklin and Woodford county lines.
Accidentally spilled bourbon tainted another Kentucky waterway last year.
When a Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown collapsed a year ago, many barrels spilled into a small tributary of the Beech Fork River. Approximately 800 fish were killed as a result of the bourbon flowing into the stream.
Chandler said the Jim Beam fire is similar to one that destroyed a bourbon warehouse at the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg in 2000. A seven-story rickhouse and thousands of barrels were reduced to rubble. Bourbon running off the bluff contaminated the Kentucky River, which supplied water to the city. The drinking water system was shut down, and there was a massive fish kill along a 66-mile stretch of the river