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Kentucky warehouse fire destroys 45,000 barrels of Jim Beam bourbon

New York

A FIRE in Kentucky destroyed a warehouse containing about 45,000 barrels of Jim Beam bourbon after officials let the blaze run its course to avoid ethanol contamination in a nearby creek that runs into the Kentucky River.

The fire started around 11pm Tuesday in Woodford County and was completely out by noon Wednesday, fire officials said. No injuries were reported.

"The biggest issue we are dealing with is the environmental aspect," said Drew Chandler, the Woodford County emergency management director. "If we put the fire out, we are going to dump a lot of water on it, and that water will be contaminated."

He said that fire officials did not know what had caused the fire, but Emily York, a spokeswoman for Jim Beam said in a statement: "Initial reports suggest the fire resulted from a lightning strike, and we will work with local authorities to confirm the cause and to remediate the impacts."

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The building is one of 126 barrel warehouses that Jim Beam operates in Kentucky. Altogether, these warehouses hold 3.3 million barrels of bourbon for the Jim Beam brand, York said.

A standard barrel typically produces 150 to 200 750-millilitre bottles, according to The (Louisville) Courier-Journal.

Prices for a standard bottle of Jim Beam vary, but an estimate of US$18 per bottle would mean the fire caused roughly US$122-US$162 million in lost revenue.

"The warehouse that was destroyed contained 45,000 barrels of relatively young whiskey from the Jim Beam mash bill," Ms York said. "Given the age of the lost whiskey, this fire will not impact the availability of Jim Beam for consumers."

Firefighters sprayed water on nearby buildings to prevent the fire from spreading, Mr Chandler said. "We are letting that distilled spirit burn out so there is less contamination in the runoff."

Martin Stute, a chairman of the department of environmental science at Barnard College said: "It probably made a lot of sense to let it burn out. Alcohol released into the environment would directly kill or damage organisms, and the decomposition of the alcohol would consume oxygen and possibly kill fish as well."

Even using fire extinguishers to put out the fire could be harmful, he said. "Those contain monoammonium phosphate, which causes eye and skin irritation in humans and also affects the respiratory system."

Letting the fire burn out was the best option, he said, because putting it out would have been difficult given that "alcohol is so extremely flammable and has such a high energy content".

There is one perk to a bourbon warehouse fire, Mr Chandler added, and it has nothing to do with drinking it. "It's about the best-smelling fire I've ever been at," he said. "It is not as pungent like in a house fire because it is mostly old natural wood and a distilled spirit, so it has a bit of a sweetness to it." NYT

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