Drinks

What the Jim Beam Warehouse Fire Means for Bourbon

An update on the Kentucky blaze that destroyed 45,000 barrels of the brown stuff

photo: Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet

The fire at a Jim Beam warehouse.

You could practically hear the collective gasp from bourbon drinkers last week when the news hit that a Jim Beam warehouse fire in Woodford, Kentucky, had sent 45,000 barrels of bourbon either up in smoke or spilling into the Kentucky River. The cause? A lightning strike, according to John Mura, the executive director of the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet’s Office of Communication. So what does this act-of-God-sized angel’s share mean for the state of bourbon? Here are the five most important things you need to know.

 

1. The loss could have been worse. 

The 45,000 barrels of Jim Beam destroyed by the blaze would have filled about 6.75 million bottles. While that might sound like a lot, the total is just a fraction of the 3.3 million barrels of Jim Beam bourbon housed in other warehouses all over the Bluegrass State, according to a statement from parent company Beam Suntory. More importantly, no one was injured in the fire. And the whiskey was relatively young—meaning it would have needed to age much longer before it would have been ready for consumption. In other words, if Jim Beam is your flavor, you won’t see any shortage of it on the shelf. One unexpected silver lining? “It’s about the best-smelling fire I’ve ever been at,” Drew Chandler, the Woodford County emergency management director, told the New York Times.

 

2. But it was pretty bad—especially for the environment.

The warehouse burned so hot that the heat melted a firetruck’s taillights like candle wax, Chandler said. Firefighters let the warehouse burn until Saturday evening in the hopes that most of the liquid would burn up rather than spill into a nearby creek. Even still, the runoff created a twenty-three-mile-long “alcohol plume” that floated down the Kentucky River, leaving thousands of fish who couldn’t hold their liquor dead in its wake—an official casualty count is forthcoming. The plume had entered the Ohio River by Sunday night, and officials expect it to dissipate soon, given the sheer volume of the river.

photo: Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet

Some of the fish killed by the spill.

3. Clean-up efforts are underway. 

Crews will be aerating the Kentucky River for the next several days to bring up oxygen levels and potentially save some fish. The water trailing the alcohol plume appears to be recovering oxygen quickly, but it’s not apparent if the fish population will bounce back the same way. State environmental officials will be issuing a notice of violation to the Beam Suntory Co., Mura wrote in an email to Garden & Gun.

 

4. This isn’t the first bourbon accident.

Bourbon warehouses have been the subject of several unfortunate accidents in recent years. In June 2018, a Barton 1792 Distillery warehouse in Bardstown, Kentucky, collapsed, sending 18,000 barrels toppling; their contents killed hundreds of fish in nearby waters, according to the Louisville Courier Journal. Just last month, about 4,000 barrels of bourbon came crashing down when part of the O.Z. Tyler Distillery collapsed in Owensboro, Kentucky, 14 News reported. Last week’s fire was the fourth major distillery fire since the 1990s, bourbon expert Fred Minnick wrote on his blog.

photo: Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet

Crews monitor the effects of the spill on the Kentucky River.

5. Kentucky’s bourbon industry is still booming.

Despite these accidents, the industry shows no signs of slowing. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail has seen a 370 percent increase in attendance over the past ten years, and the state has the highest inventory of bourbon in more than forty years, according to the Kentucky Distillers Association. So if 45,000 barrels of burning bourbon has you troubled, know that there’s still enough around for every person in Kentucky to have almost two full barrels.


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