Jim Beam warehouse destroyed by fire

The bourbon warehouse burns at the site of the former Old Crow Distillery. The warehouse is now used by Jim Beam. | Photo by Ryan Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader

By Mike Stunson and Ryan Hermaes | Lexington Herald-Leader

Crews are letting a Jim Beam bourbon warehouse in Woodford County burn out Wednesday after it caught fire overnight.

The fire at the Jim Beam warehouse began around 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, according to Drew Chandler, the Woodford County Emergency Management director. After the warehouse was destroyed, the concerns as Wednesday progressed were tending remaining flames and keeping bourbon from reaching nearby Glenns Creek, a tributary of the Kentucky River.

Jim Beam said in a prepared statement that the fire would 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.” The warehouse is on the site of the former Old Crow Distillery, in Woodford County, near the Franklin County line.

Bourbon has likely already reached the Kentucky River through the nearby creek and it could have a “sizable impact” to the fish community, a state Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesperson said late Wednesday morning.

Firefighters kept the blaze from spreading to a second nearby warehouse, Chandler said. A nearby shed was also damaged in the fire, and a tractor-trailer was a total loss, he said.

About 75 firefighters from departments from Woodford and Franklin counties and the cities of Lexington, Winchester and Versailles were at the site Wednesday, Chandler said.

Firefighters could remain on scene for “double-digit hours,” Chandler said. The remainder of the warehouse and its contents were left to burn so the distilled spirit will burn with it and not run off into the nearby tributary, he said.

“The fire has done the damage it can do,” Chandler said. “By limiting the contaminated runoff, that is one less environmental impact we have to worry about.”

While firefighters were no longer spraying the primary warehouse affected by the fire, they were spraying nearby warehouses to keep them cool, Chandler said.

“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 incident and “a few” lightning strikes were recorded along the Franklin and Woodford county lines.

Around 45,000 barrels amounts to 1.89 million gallons of bourbon. The barrels were stored in an aging warehouse, which allows the taste of the bourbon to mature.

Members of the state’s Department for Environmental Protection, as well as representatives from the American Red Cross, were on scene Wednesday.

The Bluegrass Emergency Response Team out of Lexington delivered foam to fight the fire, WKYT reported, and Woodford Feed delivered sand to build embankments to prevent leakage into nearby creeks, Chandler said. Firefighters requested the sand to prevent runoff to Glenns Creek, Chandler added.

Preliminary sampling has been done to determine if the creek has been contaminated.

John Mura, a spokesman for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, said, “there was some material that entered the creek and it is surely already in the Kentucky River.” It is not known how much bourbon entered the water, but Mura said the efforts that have been put in place to prevent further issues have paid off.

He added that a large amount of fish could die due to lowered oxygen levels in the river. The state has put a boat on the river to monitor water quality, but effects from the spill likely won’t be known for at least 24 hours, Mura said.

When a Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown collapsed last year, 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 fire is similar to one that destroyed a bourbon warehouse at the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg in 2000. A seven-story rick house 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.

No injuries have been reported from the Jim Beam fire.

In a statement, Jim Beam said it was thankful no one was injured and for the “courageous firefighters” who prevented the fire from spreading.

“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.