On Tuesday, July 2, a fire broke out in one of Jim Beam’s Kentucky whiskey warehouses, which quickly spread through the structure and then to a second warehouse. The fire burned for days, and it eventually destroyed both structures and the whiskey inside them. According to Whiskycast, Beam had a sprinkler system, which did go off, but the blaze was so intense it overwhelmed the sprinklers. The two buildings housed approximately 45,000 barrels of bourbon, all of which were destroyed by the fire or lost in runoff from damaged barrels.
The runoff liquid, which was by then a mixture of bourbon and the water that had been used for flame suppression, made its way to the Kentucky River, where it entered the water and began traveling downstream, according to the BBC. The plume of alcohol now stretches about 24 miles along the river, forcing amphibious wildlife out of the water and killing aquatic wildlife by starving them of oxygen. Wildlife officials are trying to slow the loss of fish by aerating the water, but many have already died.
According to John Mura of the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, the danger to wildlife will only dissipate once the alcohol makes its way into the Ohio River and becomes diluted. The plume first reached the Ohio River on Monday morning, local TV station WLKY reports.
“It is moving downstream, we estimated, at about a half mile an hour,” Mura told WLKY. “It’s going to take days, but eventually, it will all reach the Ohio River.”
Many Beam warehouses are built adjacent to large collecting troughs designed to catch runoff liquid, but the two warehouses involved in the fire weren’t equipped with troughs—even if they had been, the mixture of whiskey and water would likely have overwhelmed them anyway.
As for the whiskey in the warehouses, Beam Suntory (the parent company of Jim Beam) told outlets the whiskey aging in those two warehouses was mostly “relatively young,” NBC News reports. Beam owns over 120 warehouses across Kentucky, with more than 3 million gallons in storage, so this portion accounts for a little over one percent of that supply. If it does mean production problems for the brand, it will be a few years down the line, and so far it doesn’t sound like anything rare was destroyed.
But the wildlife impact is severe. Although the dead fish count is ongoing, it’s clear that the spill caused serious harm to the animals in the river.
“This is a significant fish kill,” Mura told WLKY. “It’s something that we wish never happened, but everyone is dealing the best they can.”
Unfortunately, this kind of spill isn’t uncommon; it marks the third Kentucky whiskey warehouse incident in the past year alone. Last fall, a warehouse collapsed at Barton Distillery, which produces the 1792 brand. Similar wildlife issues arose as the leaked whiskey entered a water source. And just a few weeks ago, a warehouse collapsed during an intense storm in Western Kentucky at the O.Z. Tyler distillery.