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down the drain

Fire at US Jim Beam warehouse destroys 45,000 barrels of bourbon, as alcohol flows into river

State officials are now worried that the runoff whiskey seeping into the Kentucky River could kill fish.

CBS News / YouTube

A FIRE HAS destroyed a massive Jim Beam warehouse filled with about 45,000 barrels of aging bourbon in Kentucky in the US.

State officials are now worried that the runoff whiskey seeping into the Kentucky River could kill fish.

Jim Beam is the world’s best-selling bourbon brand. The classic American whiskey brand is owned by Suntory Holdings Ltd, a Japanese beverage company.

Firefighters from four counties nearby responded to the fire that broke out on Tuesday night, which completely destroyed the warehouse. 

It is believed lightning might have been a factor but fire investigators haven’t been able to start looking for the cause.

Jim Beam Facility Fire The scene of the fire at the Jim Beam warehouse in Kentucky Pat McDonogh / Courier Journal Pat McDonogh / Courier Journal / Courier Journal

No injuries have been reported, according to local emergency management director Drew Chandler. 

The fire has since been contained, but it was allowed to burn until midday yesterday. 

“The longer it burns, the more of the distilled spirits burn with it,” Chandler said.

So when they go to put it out, there will be less contaminated runoff that goes into a drinking-water tributary.

Aging whiskey

The distilling company said the multi-story warehouse that burned contained “relatively young whiskey”, meaning it had not reached maturity for bottling for consumers.

Bourbon acquires its colour and flavour while aging for years in charred new oak barrels.

“Given the age of the lost whiskey, this fire will not impact the availability of Jim Beam for consumers,” the spirits company said in a statement.

The destroyed whiskey amounted to about 1% of Beam’s bourbon inventory, it said.

Kentucky distillers produce 95% of the world’s bourbon, according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association.

Jim Beam Facility Fire Bourbon mixes with water in the Kentucky River Pat McDonogh / Courier Journal Pat McDonogh / Courier Journal / Courier Journal

Environmental impact 

As firefighters continued to battle the fire yesterday, focus began to turn to the environmental impact of the leaking bourbon.

The distiller has hired an emergency cleanup crew and state environmental officials are coordinating efforts to control bourbon runoff into a nearby creek that flows into the Kentucky River, according to a spokesman for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.

“We do know there has been runoff enter the creek,” the spokesperson said. “And it has made its way into the Kentucky River.”

The runoff could have a “serious impact on aquatic life,” he said. Runoff is expected to create “low dissolved oxygen levels,” which could result in substantial fish kills, the agency said in a statement.

State officials have warned recreational users on the Kentucky River that runoff will result in water discoloration, foaming and an odor.

Beam Suntory officials said they are working with authorities to assess environmental effects.

The distiller said it was grateful to the “courageous firefighters” who brought the blaze under control and kept it from spreading.

Beam Suntory officials said the distiller has a “comprehensive” warehouse safety programme that includes regular inspections and “rigorous protocols” to promote safety.

Includes reporting by Associated Press

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