Firefighters Contain Distillery Fire

Published: Aug. 5, 2003 at 2:03 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 12, 2003 at 10:51 AM EDT
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(BARDSTOWN, Ky., August 5th, 2003, 10 a.m.) -- The smoldering white oak barrels that held 800,000 gallons of whiskey are all that remains of a Jim Beam warehouse in the heart of Kentucky bourbon country that caught fire Monday.

But fire officials aren't dwelling on what was lost, because they say the blaze 40 miles south of Louisville could have been much worse.

"More or less everything went our way," said Bardstown firefighter David Dadisman, who helped with successful efforts to keep the fire from spreading to three nearby warehouses and hundreds of empty barrels. There were also no reports of injuries.

\The fire began after the warehouse was struck by lightning, according to a statement from Jim Beam's headquarters in Deerfield, Ill. Bardstown Fire Chief Anthony Mattingly suspected that lightning sparked the blaze, but could not be certain until an investigation is complete.

If lightning was the cause, authorities said it was fortunate it did not strike the three other warehouses, all of which were on higher ground. That would have resulted in the whiskey running out of the burning barrels downhill and spreading the fire to other structures.

Instead, the alcohol runoff went into a creek that firefighters could dam up to prevent further spreading.

"Of the ones you could have picked to burn, this one was the least threatening to the others," said Bardstown Mayor Dixie Hibbs, who watched the blaze from a road about a city block away.

She was there when firefighters got another break -- the metal and wood warehouse collapsed around 4 p.m.

Without the collapse, firefighter Dadisman said, the fire would have spread to two other warehouses because the was blowing toward them.

Bardstown Assistant Fire Chief Robbie Blanford said he welcomed the collapse because it "took a lot of heat off us."

John Geoghegan, an employee at Trim Masters Inc. across the road from the fire, was outside loading trucks when he saw the flames stretching twice as high as the building. But he said the fire went down considerably after the collapse.

"I heard a big boom, lots of rumbling," Geoghegan said. "The flames shot up, and then came down."

The warehouse held approximately 19,000 barrels of bourbon, or less than two percent of Jim Beam's bourbon inventory.

"We are grateful that no one was harmed and we appreciate the heroic efforts of the first responders and the local fire fighting personnel," said Rich Reese, CEO and President, Jim Beam Brands Worldwide.

There are more than 200 bourbon warehouses in Kentucky, which store about four million barrels, according to Ed O'Daniel, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association. Jim Beam is the largest bourbon producer in the state, O'Daniel said.

More than 95 percent of the world's bourbon is produced in Kentucky, where it has been made since the 1780s. More than a half-dozen distilleries are in the region, including Jim Beam, Maker's Mark and Wild Turkey.

The last such fire occurred in 2000 when a blaze at a Wild Turkey distillery in Lawrenceburg destroyed a seven-story warehouse that held nearly 1 million gallons of aging bourbon in 17,200 barrels.

A similar massive fire at Heaven Hill Distilleries' Bardstown production facility in 1996 destroyed a distilling building and an estimated 2 percent of the world's stored bourbon.

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(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)