World Whiskey’s Five Worst Industrial Calamities
By Richard Thomas
Industry is prone to accident and calamity, and the whiskey industry perhaps moreso than most. This is due to the salient fact that it is an industry dealing in a highly flammable substance, namely concentrated alcohol in its vaporous and liquid forms. The history of the world whiskey business is replete with destructive tales, such as the Dublin Liberties Fire of 1875.
Such stories are not just a part of antique history however, and many whiskey catastrophes are part of living memory. These are the five biggest whiskey industry disasters of modern times:
5. The Chivas Flushing Of 2013: During a night shift clean-up at Chivas Brothers’ Dumbarton, Scotland bottling plant in February 2013, workers accidentally opened the valves on an estimated 18,000 liters of aged whisky stock (the volume remains unconfirmed by Chivas Brothers to this day), dumping it into local sewers. The workers thought they were dumping waste water instead. The boozy smell was so potent that workers in the area sewage treatment plant detected the problem as soon as the whisky reached them, and it represented a major loss of stock for the company.
4. The Wild Turkey Warehouse Fire And Spill: In May 2000, fire consumed a seven-story rickhouse on the main property of Wild Turkey, located outside Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Flames were reported to have shot 200 feet into the air, and the blaze set nearby woods alight.
Not all the bourbon contained in the over 17,000 barrels stored in the warehouse was torched, however. Wild Turkey sits atop high bluffs above the Kentucky River. Following the course of gravity, a large portion of the bourbon spilled into the river, poisoning the waters and killing hundreds of thousands of fish along a 66-mile stretch of the river. The regional drinking water system was also impaired, and restrictions were imposed for a time. Pernod-Ricard, who owned Wild Turkey at that time, donated $250,000 to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife to help restock the river with fish.
3. The 1954 Pekin Disaster: Three warehouses of the American Distillery in Pekin, Illinois burned down in August 1954, destroying 42,000 barrels of whiskey, killing six workers and injuring more than 30 others. The fire could have been much worse, as a further 220,000 barrels of booze was stored in neighboring warehouses.
2. The Heaven Hill Inferno: Even worse for Kentucky’s bourbon industry than the Wild Turkey fire was the infamous Heaven Hill Inferno of November 1996, when an estimated 90,000 barrels of whiskey stored in seven warehouses were consumed. Fanned by gusts of wind that reached 75 mph, the blaze became a vision of hell as the flames reached heights of 350 feet, exploding barrels were seen flying through the air, and rivers of burning whiskey coursed down roadways.
The 150 firefighters called to the scene soon abandoned attempts to extinguish the existing fires, and instead drew up a defensive line so as to prevent the fire’s spread. In addition to the warehouses, half of the distillery plant and seven other smaller buildings, including the shipping office, warehouse office and unloading facility, and 28 Heaven Hill-owned and private vehicles also burned.
The loss amounted to some 14% of Heaven Hill’s total stock, then (and now) the second-largest store of aging bourbon in the world. The catastrophe reportedly forced Heaven Hill to muddle through with stock purchased from Brown-Forman, used to plug the gap, until the company was able to acquire the Bernheim Distillery. No cause was ever determined, but it was widely believed to have been due to a lightening strike.
That no one was killed in the Heaven Hill Inferno borders on miraculous. The fire was so severe and generated so much heat that some fireman at the scene, standing a few hundred feet back from the blaze, reported their helmets had melted and warped from exposure.
1. The Cheapside Whisky Fire: This March 1960 blaze went down not just as the worst whiskey disaster in modern history, but also as the worst peacetime fire in Britain. A fire broke out in a Glasgow, Scotland bonded warehouse holding stores of over one million gallons worth of whisky, and some rum as well. The warehouse exploded and burned out of control for several hours, razing many neighboring buildings along with it, including a tobacco warehouse, an ice cream factory and an engine works. 450 area firefighters were called in to combat the fire, which shot blue flames 40 feet into the sky and was visible from most parts of Glasgow.
This disaster goes down as the worst fire in post-war British history not because of the destruction it wreaked, but because of the cost in lives. When the warehouse exploded and collapsed, 19 fire servicemen were killed by falling or flying debris. The Glasgow fire service continues to hold a memorial service for their fallen every March 28.