The fire broke out just before midnight on Tuesday at a warehouse used to store bourbon in barrels for aging, firefighters said. Several fire crews responded but they couldn’t get close to the building due to the intense heat created by the burning alcohol. The fire was so intense that it melted lights on the firetrucks, authorities said Wednesday.
Fire crews took a careful approach to the blaze, allowing it to rage on so that it could burn away most of the alcohol. They were concerned that blasting the building with water would flush thousands of litres of alcohol into a creek that feeds the Kentucky River, according to Drew Chandler, emergency management director for Woodford County.
“The longer it burns, the more of the distilled spirits burn with it,” Chandler told The Associated Press. “So when they put it out, there will be less contaminated runoff that goes into a drinking-water estuary.”
Initial reports suggest the fire was caused by a lightning strike, according to Jim Beam’s parent company, Beam Suntory.
The company says the fire affected a batch of “relatively young whiskey,” and said it should have no impact on global bourbon prices.
Beam Suntory has hired an emergency cleanup crew and state officials are working to control the bourbon runoff, according to John Mura, a spokesperson for the Kentucky Energy and Environmental Cabinet.
“We do know there has been runoff entering the creek,” Mura said. “And it has made its way into the Kentucky River.”
Mura says the runoff could have a “serious impact on aquatic life,” lowering the oxygen level in the water and triggering mass fish die-offs.
Photos taken from overhead show the alcohol-contaminated runoff pouring into the Kentucky River.
“The Kentucky River is now half bourbon,” one individual tweeted.
The warehouse was completely destroyed in the blaze, wiping out about 1 per cent of Jim Beam’s bourbon inventory, the company said.
A standard bourbon barrel holds approximately 200 litres of bourbon, meaning about 9 million litres of alcohol went up in the fire.
One barrel can produce approximately 150 to 200 bourbon bottles, according to the Louisville Courier Journal. The paper estimates that 6.75 million bottles were lost in the blaze, based on a 750-millilitre bottle of alcohol.
Losses are anticipated to be more than US$100 million.
—With files from The Associated Press