Part of Bardstown bourbon facility collapses; 9,000 barrels involved

About 9,000 barrels of bourbon sat in piles of debris after a section of a barrel storage warehouse collapsed Friday at the Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown.
About 9,000 barrels of bourbon sat in piles of debris after a section of a barrel storage warehouse collapsed Friday at the Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown.

A large portion of a bourbon barrel storage facility at Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown collapsed Friday, according to the company.

The collapse of about half of the facility occurred around 11 a.m. Friday, according to Nelson County Emergency Management Director Joe Prewitt. No one was injured in the collapse, said Amy Preske, spokeswoman for Barton Brands.

"We are still assessing the damage," Preske said.

Photos showed bourbon barrels were stacked in a mess .

Around 20,000 barrels were in the storage building, called a rickhouse, Nelson County 911 director Milton Spalding said in a press conference Friday afternoon. About 9,000 of those were affected by the collapse.

Bardstown Fire Department Chief Billy Mattingly told the Kentucky Standard that half of the building collapsed length-wise and the other half was leaning and starting to bow. According to the Kentucky Standard, no one was allowed within 200 feet of the building.

Prewitt said Friday night that "no one's even attempted" to assess the structural integrity of the remainder of the building, as all efforts had been focused on containing the bourbon runoff.

According to WAVE 3, work was being done on the building to repair a wall, but workers were not present when the collapse occurred.

The cause of the facility collapse had not been determined as of 6 p.m., Prewitt said.

"These warehouses are built pretty sturdy," he said.

However, the rickhouse sits on a slope and some of the barrels rolled down it toward a wooded area along a small tributary of the Beech Fork River, Prewitt said. There was concern, he said, that the whiskey could get into the river.

That is what happened in 2000, when a fire destroyed a bourbon warehouse at the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, reducing a seven-story rickhouse and thousands of barrels 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.

Luckily for Bardstown, its water is not supplied by Beech Fork River, but by eight water treatment plants located below the dam of Sympson Lake on Boston Road, according to the city. But during months with little rainfall, water can be pumped from Beech Fork River at a rate of 6 million gallons per day to supplement the lake.

Spalding said Friday afternoon that tests were being done to determine if there was a spill or leak of bourbon into the river. Tests of nearby water came back clean, he said.

The Environmental Protection Agency and Kentucky Division of Water were on site, Prewitt said.

He said a retention pond had been dug Friday afternoon, and two controlled burns had been conducted to get rid of bourbon runoff. An environmental cleanup company had been brought in.

"We have considerable leakage," Prewitt said. "It's going to be quite an undertaking."

Mattingly told the Kentucky Standard that the building that collapsed has a 12-foot basement that can also help contain leaks.

The distillery posted an statement on its Facebook page Friday afternoon, saying that the visitor's center and tours of the facility would be closed for the rest of the day but that normal operations would resume Saturday morning.

Barton 1792 Distillery is owned by Sazerac, the parent company of Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort. Barton Brands of Kentucky has facilities in Bardstown, Baltimore, Md., and Carson, Calif. The Barton 1792 Distillery was established in 1879 and is the oldest fully-operating distillery in Bardstown, according to the company.

Besides the distillery, there are 28 warehouses and 22 other buildings on the 196-acre property, which makes and ages several award-winning small batch bourbons. It is named for the year that Kentucky became a state.

Bourbon warehouses constructed of wood and holding thousands of gallons of flammable liquid have been the scenes of spectacular disasters. In 1996, a warehouse at Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown caught fire. Before that blaze was put out, flames shooting 300 feet to 400 feet in the air caught seven warehouses and the distillery on fire.

In 2003, a Jim Beam warehouse holding 800,000 gallons of whiskey caught fire after the building apparently was struck by lightning.

Bardstown firefighters were able to keep the fire from spreading to three nearby warehouses. Alcohol from 19,000 burning barrels in the warehouse spilled into a nearby creek that was dammed up to prevent the fire from spreading.

And in 2006, a storm with tornado-strength winds tore the roof and part of a brick wall off of two Buffalo Trace warehouses. Ironically, the bourbon later released from the remaining barrels, the 2012 E.H. Taylor Jr. Warehouse C "Tornado Surviving" Bourbon, was hailed as some of the best.

In 2015, the Silver Trail Distillery, a small craft distiller in Hardin, exploded, killing one and severely burning another. The Kentucky fire marshal's investigation blamed the fire on faulty equipment.