LAWRENCEBURG, KY. -- Who would have thought bourbon and water would be a problem in Kentucky?
A fire at a distillery warehouse destroyed more than 17,000 oaken barrels of Wild Turkey and sent flaming bourbon into the water supply, forcing schools and businesses in this town of 8,000 to close yesterday.
The liquor never got into the tap water, because the water plant shut down as the bourbon - some of it superbly well-aged at 15 years old - splashed by on its way into the Kentucky River. But the warehouse about 100 yards up the hill was reduced to rubble in the blaze yesterday.
Townspeople joked about drunken fish and free drinks down at the waterfront.
"I just tell them we're having Happy Hour at the river later. Just bring their own bucket," said city worker Debbie Steele.
There were no injuries in the blaze, though two firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
Workers at the Boulevard Distillers plant were on strike for about four weeks until about a month ago. But Gregg Snyder, managing director of the plant, said he had no reason to believe the blaze was related to the labor dispute.
Yesterday, water plant workers tried to get pumping again, and distillery employees bottled bourbon from the remaining 11 warehouses. Snyder said there is plenty of bourbon in the remaining warehouses at the plant, which employs 150 workers, and supplies should not be affected.
Environmental officials found no fish kills and said no other community water supplies were in danger.
The capital, Frankfort, is about 15 miles down river.
This is the heart of bourbon country in a state known for thoroughbreds, bluegrass and bourbon, a breed of whiskey made for sipping. It's also the main ingredient in mint juleps, a drink made famous by the Kentucky Derby horse race.
At one time, there were 16 distilleries in Anderson County alone. Mergers and closings have concentrated the business, leaving only 16 distilleries in all of Kentucky. Bourbon must, by federal decree, contain at least 51 percent corn, along with wheat, rye, barley, other grains and yeast. It is aged in 53-gallon oaken casks for years, sometimes as little as four, or as many as 15. Workers at the water plant reported hearing an explosion and watching the warehouse reduced to a burning heap in a few minutes. The warehouses are about seven stories high, with wooden frames and tin siding, and contain young bourbon that is more volatile than the well-aged stuff. Snyder said the barrels lost in the fire had been stored anywhere from three months to 15 years.