The day was Thursday November 7, 1996. It was a pretty typical workday at the Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky. Weather reports from the day say there was a storm front moving through the area with strong northwesterly winds of 50 mph and gusts of up to 75 mph. Windy but, not a big deal on a typical day. As it turns out, this day was anything but typical.
It was business as usual at Distilled Spirits Plant (DSP)-KY-31 until reports starting coming in around 2pm that Warehouse I was on fire. It was a traditional whiskey warehouse made of old wooden timbers quietly aging approximately 20,000 thousand, 53 gallon white oak barrels filled with fine Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey. The alcohol would have had a barrel entry proof somewhere between 100 and 125 proof making for a very tasty Bourbon but also making it extremely flammable. 15 minutes after the first report of a fire, the entire warehouse was engulfed in flames.
Before we tell you more, rest assured, there was no loss of life from this massive fire and amazingly, no injuries. There were four firefighters that had helmets distorted and melted from the intense heat but no injuries.
The videos below take you on a journey starting 20 miles away from the fire. The helicopter pilot and reporter took to the air about two hours after the start of the fire. Flames could be seen shooting 300 to 400 feet into the air from over 20 miles away as the alcohol burned and barrels exploded.
Heaven Hill Distillery Flames Shooting 300 to 400 Feet into the Air
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When firefighters arrived on the scene Warehouse I was 50 to 75 percent engulfed in flames. There wasn’t much they could do to put out a fire fueled by burning alcohol. Adding water would just spread the fire. Using foam was the only way to snuff out the fire but the flames proved too intense for the close application of foam. All they could do was try to save the neighboring warehouses.
According to a 1996 report from Industrial Fire World, Bardstown Fire Department’s First Assistant Fire Chief Anthony Mattingly said, “When the metal siding on Warehouse “I” disintegrated, it sent an 80 foot wall of flames into the air…high winds pushed much of the fire shooting toward Warehouse “J” low to the ground. Firefighters were forced to abandon the second warehouse when the tar roof ignited and, inside, fire began spreading beneath the single wooden staircase that gave firefighters access to the upper floors. The warehouse went from 10 percent involvement to 90 percent involvement in less than three minutes.
When that fire started laying down on the ground, it was really a run for your life situation,” Mattingly said.
The combined heat from the two burning warehouses made it impossible to save the next closest warehouse downwind, Warehouse “K”. Firefighters pulled back to protect the other hilltop warehouses nearby. As warehouse “I” collapsed, crushed barrels inside sent burning alcohol flowing downhill, spreading fire toe Warehouses “C” and “D” below it. One Heaven Hill employee quoted in The Kentucky Standard described the spreading flames as a “river of fire.”
Within a four hour period, seven warehouses and the actual distillery were completely lost to the fire. Of the 44 warehouses on site, 37 survived the fire. In total, over 90,000 barrels of Bourbon were lost, two percent of the world’s whiskey at the time.
Heaven Hill Distillery Fire Part 1
Heaven Hill Distillery Fire Part 2
Heaven Hill Distillery Fire Part 3
Heaven Hill Distillery Fire Part 4
The Galoots Sing ‘Heaven Hill’s on Fire’
One thing that emerged from this whiskey tragedy was a great bluegrass song by the Galoots called “Heaven Hill’s on Fire.” Only seems right that a Kentucky bluegrass band would be singin’ the blues about the loss of whiskey.
Industrial Fire World