Recently a fire at the Jim Beam warehouse facility at the Old Crow Distillery destroyed 45,000 barrels of aging Bourbon. This has generated a lot of talk about such fires. It is the 5th distillery fire in Kentucky since 1996 when the Heaven Hill fire destroyed their distillery. The news stations have been talking about the Beam fire and the frequency that they have occurred, but they are nothing new in the history of the industry. The fact that we have had so few fires in the last 25 years is a testimony to the improvements to safety in the distilleries today. It is an industry that has inherent dangers from fire since the product is very flammable, the barrel is flammable and the risk of fire is always there when making whiskey.
In the early days distillery fires of such magnitude were not common. Small distilleries used wood fired pot stills to make their spirits. Their production was small by today’s standards. There were very few distilleries of that day making more than 30 barrels a day, and the average distillery was making whiskey at a rate of about 10 barrels or less a day. The warehousing of aging whiskey was thus very small compared to a modern distillery. The barrels would be stored in a single storied warehouse and probably have no more than 500 barrels in storage at a time. The still house would not be in the aging warehouse and the biggest threat of fire came from the distilling process itself, because of the wood fired stills.
Whiskey production changed after the American Civil War. Government bonded warehouses were a requirement and they tended to be larger than antebellum warehouses. These warehouses became multistoried building after the introduction of the barrel rack system in 1879. These metal clad or masonry buildings were more prone to lightning strikes and weather related fires. Production increased since distilling had improved with more distilleries using column stills with an increased daily production rising to hundreds of barrels per day. Steam power replaced the wood fire for distilling, but boiler technology was still in its infancy. Boiler explosions became a big fire threat during production. In Jefferson County, Kentucky area alone, there were three fires at distilleries in the 8 year period between 1883 and 1891 with the Stitzel Bros. Distillery at 26th and Broadway burning down in 1883, a mash room fire at the Belmont Distillery in 1890 and the Pleasure Ridge Park Distillery warehouse fire in 1891. There is hardly a month in the pre-Prohibition trade magazines that do not mention a fire at a distillery somewhere in the United States.
After the repeal of Prohibition there was a burst of new distilleries being built. Technology improved as did the design of the new distilleries. Fire safety and containment became built into the construction of new distilleries. Containment systems around warehouses were often built to keep burning alcohol from spreading to other buildings. Sprinkler systems were added to warehouses. Distilleries kept firefighting equipment on site and trained employees in its use. Some distilleries went so far as to purchase fire trucks for the distillery.
Distillery fires were less common after Prohibition, yet they still happened. So, when they happened, these fires were much larger. A large fire at the Glenmore Distillery in Owensboro, Kentucky destroyed 33,000 barrels of whiskey and a large portion of their bottled whiskey in 1938. This fire was so large it caught the Ohio River on fire, burning a barn on the Indiana side of the river. The burning whiskey flowed into the sewer system and threatened to spread into the city. When Glenmore rebuilt their warehouses, they placed them in containment dikes to prevent a similar disaster. Distillery fires became less common as technology improved in the 20th century. The biggest threat of fire now comes from the weather. Lightning rods offer some protection to warehouses but it is not a perfect system.
It is a testimony to the improvement of technology and the training of the distillery workers that there are not more frequent occurrences of fires today. There has been a huge growth not only in the production of whiskey, but also in the number of distilleries. There have been some explosions and fires at the new smaller craft distilleries, but they few compared to the number of these small distilleries being built. There will be distillery fires in the future. Accidents do happen and the weather is always a danger. The best way to prevent these fires is to have a well-trained workforce that takes fire safety seriously.