Twenty Years After The Fire, You Can Still See Some Scars
By Richard Thomas
On Monday I found myself between appointments at Willett and the Bardstown Bourbon Company, and nestled right between them is the property of the old Heaven Hill Distillery. Today, it still has active rickhouses, offices, a major bottling plant, and a visitor center. What it does not have is an active distillery, or even an inactive one. For almost two decades now, Heaven Hill’s actual production has been at the Bernheim Distillery in Louisville.
This is because in November 1996 the company suffered what I have described as the second worst whiskey disaster in history, when a fire consumed seven whole warehouses containing 90,000 barrels of whiskey, some 14% of the total stock held by the company at that time. Rivers of burning liquor streamed down roads and concrete walkways, flames soared 350 feet into the air, and ultimately around 150 firefighters were needed to contain the inferno. The fires spread to the distillery plant, and while the entire building didn’t burn down, it was fatally damaged. Several other buildings and numerous vehicles were also burnt, and the sole reason I rate the Glasgow whisky fire of 1960 as worse is because no one was killed in the Heaven Hill disaster.
My memory of what Heaven Hill was before the November 1996 accident is kept alive by period photography, and I find going there today a haunting experience. I paused on the road to photograph some of the outlying rickhouses, at a bend where an old retaining pond still lies. A blue egret, disturbed by my arrival, flew off between the trees and their autumn colors. It was a beautiful scene, until my attention turned to the rusty old pipes, likely neglected ever since the fire. The nearby, outlying part of the property, where it adjoins the road, has its own reminders: concrete pathways and steps leading to buildings that no longer exist.
As I left the visitor center, I was approached by an enthusiast who wanted to know if I had bought a bottle of the new Heaven Hill Select Stock 20th Anniversary Fire Edition. In a minor, personal coincidence, my stop at Heaven Hill overlapped with the release of a 20 year old survivor of the fire, priced at $200 a bottle. He wanted to know if I had bought one, and since I hadn’t (not in the budget!), if I would collude to buy a second bottle for him. Being a writer who is picky about ethics, I declined. Besides, I was done with reminders of the 1996 fire for the day.