LOUISVILLE – Fire turned a Jim Beam warehouse into a burning pile of rubble Wednesday as thousands of gallons of bourbon runoff spilled into a nearby creek and the Kentucky River.
The warehouse in Woodford County contained 45,000 bourbon barrels, and the intense heat from the burning bourbon made it difficult for firefighters to battle the blaze, said Drew Chandler, Woodford County Emergency Management director.
One standard bourbon barrel usually holds about 53 gallons of bourbon that eventually turns into around 150 to 200 750-milliliter bottles. If all the barrels held bourbon, that would be a loss of at least 6.75 million bottles.
Chandler said the blaze began about 11:30 p.m. Tuesday at the facility.
He said the cause was unclear, but Beam Suntory, the Chicago-based spirits company that owns Jim Beam, said initial reports indicate “the fire resulted from a lightning strike.”
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The National Weather Service in Louisville said rain and lightning were reported in the area late Tuesday.
Chandler said the fire began in one barrel warehouse before spreading to a second.
He said crews were able to put out flames in the second warehouse and no injuries were reported.
A Versailles Police officer said the fire was so hot that it melted the windows of a nearby house. He said five or six agencies were responding to the fire.
Gary Tate, who lives on a farm across the street with his wife Linda, said the fire sounded “like someone set off a stick of dynamite right outside the house.”
The flames were so intense, they melted the front side of their home and “peeled it just like a banana,” he said.
Jim Beam produces its bourbon whiskey in Clermont, Kentucky, roughly 25 miles south of Louisville.
At 11:15 a.m., Woodford County emergency officials allowed media to enter an area about 50 yards from the warehouse. By that time, the warehouse had become a burning pile of rubble, and a strong scent of bourbon was in the air.
Meanwhile, runoff from the blaze had made it to the nearby Kentucky River and Glenns Creek, according to John Mura, a spokesman for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. Crews were using sand to try to prevent more runoff from going into the streams, he said.
Mura said officials anticipated a “significant” number of fish in the creek and river would die because of the runoff and lowered oxygen levels in the water.
Beam Suntory said the warehouse held 45,000 barrels of “relatively young whiskey from the Jim Beam mash bill.”
“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 Beam Suntory statement said. “Given the age of the lost whiskey, this fire will not impact the availability of Jim Beam for our customers.”
The firm operates 126 barrel warehouses in Kentucky that hold approximately 3.3 million barrels, it said.
The fire was still burning as of 7:20 p.m. Wednesday when it began to rain, and police were monitoring the burning rubble.