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5 Distillery Disasters

Updated: Mar 5



cow looking at the camera with flames

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


It is likely that any whisky enthusiast has heard of the drunken cows of Banff. However, it is a fact that numerous distilleries have been struck by disasters, ranging from bombings to fires.


During the World War, it was common for whisky production to cease, and many distilleries were used for military housing or operations. Only a few were left to continue production, mainly supplying industrial alcohol for the war efforts. It is easy to imagine the temptation these sites posed to Germans in their quest to bombard the enemy. Fortunately, only a handful of them were successfully hit.


Watson's scotch whisky bond destroyed by fire in 1906

Image by Master of Malt


Fires and deaths were once common occurrences in Scottish distilleries, but they have become less frequent due to the implementation of due diligence and health and safety regulations. Nowadays, people are well aware of the flammable compounds and chemicals used in the distilling process, which has further reduced the likelihood of major incidents with casualties. Additionally, the modernisation and automation of the distilling process have decreased the number of people working at the sites, making human error less likely to occur.


Only a few distilleries nowadays utilise a direct flame to heat their stills. Most prefer to use steam coils for the sake of consistency, labour reduction, and safety. It goes without saying that limiting human exposure to an open flame is the safer choice.


Wood fired still and whisky heating coil

Image by Montanaya Distillers/whisky.com


On the other side of the Atlantic, constructing a distillery and warehousing can be hazardous. There have been several instances of rickhouse collapses, some of which have also resulted in fires. These accidents have caused damage to the surrounding wildlife and waterways. Many distilleries are situated in areas that are susceptible to hurricanes and storms, which can lead to buildings losing their roofs and even being struck by lightning. In this article, we have included five of the most notable disasters that have occurred in recent years.


 

1. Banff & The Drunken Cows


Banff disaster distillery Scotland

Image by Banff & Macduff Heritage Trail


Let me start by talking about the Banff distillery. The distillery was located in Banff, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, and operated from 1863 to 1983. Unfortunately, the history of the distillery was marked by several disasters, earning it a reputation as a disaster distillery where everything that could go wrong did. The distillery had a turbulent past; some even believed it was built on cursed land.


Although the first mention of the distillery dates back to 1824, it was only in 1863 that James Simpson Jr. built the new distillery, which marked the beginning of its operation. However, 14 years later, in 1877, the distillery was destroyed by a fire. Despite this setback, the distillery was back in operation six months later, with the addition of an on-site fire engine. Production ceased during the First World War, and during the 1920s, the slump in whisky consumption forced the Simpson family into involuntary liquidation in March 1932. The new owner, SMD, only opened the distillery for a short period until the Second World War began, and the distillery was forced to shut down again.


Unfortunately, on the 16th of August 1941, the distillery was hit by a German Junkers Ju-88 bombing, which destroyed the malt barns and warehouse No. 12. The casks became flying wrecking balls, and a blue fire river flowed from the warehouses into the nearby waterways. The next day, the cows could not stand up for their daily milking, and wild geese, ducks, and other waterfowl were reportedly flapping on the shores drunkenly.


drunken cow illustration

Image by Flickr


Banff faced multiple disasters throughout its history. One such incident occurred on the 3rd of October 1959 when a coppersmith accidentally caused an explosion while brazing a still. As a result, the spirit still and a significant portion of the distillery were destroyed. Fortunately, there were no fatalities, but SMD received a fine of £15 in 1960 for failing to comply with the necessary safety regulations.


In 1983, the owner of DLC decided to halt production and later demolished the distillery, ending the catastrophic fate of Banff. The demolition process began in 1985 and concluded in 1991 when a fire burned down the last remaining structures on the site.


Banff faced numerous rebuilding attempts, but the curse seemed to take it down again and again.



 

2. Kilchoman & The Burning Kiln


The Kilchoman Distillery, located in Islay, was founded in 2005 by the Wills Family. Unfortunately, a disaster occurred shortly after its establishment. On February 12, 2006, the kiln caught fire, and it all began with rugby.


Kilchoman distillery burnt kiln

Image by Whisky Consultants/ kilchomania.com


The father of the family, Anthony, went to Edinburgh to watch a rugby match, leaving his sons George and Peter in charge. Wanting to get home to watch the match on TV, the boys decided to pour a whole bag of coal into the kiln instead of following instructions to add little by little. As a result, the kiln caught fire and destroyed the newly built roof. Although the story blames the 'sons' for the mistake, Peter actually made the miscalculation. If you ever meet Peter, he would love to be reminded about the incident. (Not)


who burnt down the kiln at Kilchoman distillery

Image by The Whisky Exchange/ The Whisky Ardvark


Although it was a terrible accident at the time, which is not commonly seen nowadays due to health and safety regulations, they can now laugh about it after almost 15 years. It seems that there was a lovely scent in the air that day.



 

3. Barton & The Collapsed Warehouse


The Barton 1792 distillery and its warehouses are located in Bardstown, Kentucky, and are owned by the Sazerac Company - the same parent company as Buffalo Trace. The 29 warehouses on site were built back in the 1940s. However, one of the buildings met a tragic fate on June 22nd, 2018. Half of the 7-story building, which housed around 9,000 barrels of whiskey, collapsed, leading to significant financial losses and environmental damage. The collapse also caused the death of around 800 fish as the whiskey seeped into the nearby waterways.

Barton distillery warehouse collapse 2018

Image by Cincinnati Esquire/ Esquire


Two weeks after the initial crash, the remainder of the building finally collapsed, leaving behind a mountain of almost 20,000 barrels and causing even more damage to the surrounding soil. How many barrels survived the crash is unclear, but more than 120,000 gallons of bourbon spilt from the collapsed warehouse. To this day, the reason for the accident remains unclear. Some speculate it was due to the building's old wood and construction methods, which should have been inspected and secured accordingly. However, it is possible that the collapse resulted from extensive use and wear over time.


Barton bourbon whiskey distillery collapse 2018

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


In less than a year, another warehouse in Kentucky experienced a similar incident where part of it collapsed. This occurred in 2019 at an O.Z. Tyler distillery warehouse site in Owensboro. The rickhouse H, which housed over 20,000 barrels, had over 4,000 barrels lose their foundation and fall to the ground.



 

4. Wild Turkey & The Burning Warehouse


In 2000, one of the 12 Wild Turkey warehouses, owned by Pernod Ricard and now owned by Campari Group, caught fire. The seven-story warehouse's fire resulted in over 17,000 whiskey barrels being destroyed, leaving a devastating impact. The spilt whiskey caused the loss of over 228,000 fish in the Kentucky River and ignited the surrounding trees and a local water plant. It is a reminder that a warehouse fire can have disastrous consequences for the environment.


wild turkey whiskey distillery warehouse burning 2000

Image by Spirit Business


But Wild Turkey is not the only US distillery warehouse to be hit by a fire in the past decades. There have been at least 5 fires reported in recent years: In Heaven Hill 1996, Wild Turkey 2000, Jim Beam 2003 and 2019, and Silver Trail 2015. The Silver Trail distillery fire and explosion were the only ones to cause casualties - a distiller, Kyle Rogers, lost his life, and another worker was critically injured but survived.


Silver Trail warehouse fire 2015

Image by Marshall County Daily - Silver Trail Explosion



 

5. Chivas & The Wastewater Mistake


Back in March 2013, a group of workers at a Dumbarton bottling plant made a mistake and poured around 18,000 litres of wastewater down the drain. It turned out that they had actually disposed of aged whisky, which ended up costing the Chivas Brothers thousands of pounds. It's surprising that no one raised any questions about the smell or any other issues when such a large quantity was poured away.


Chivas Regal Dumbarton bottling plant wasted whisky

Image by The Whisky Ardvark/ Chivas Brothers


In September 2021, an engineer at the Dumbarton bottling plant suffered significant injuries after being crushed inside a machine. Pernod Ricard was fined £50,000 for failing to implement necessary safety measures.



 
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