A fire has destroyed a massive Jim Beam warehouse in Kentucky filled with about 45,000 barrels of bourbon.
Firefighters from four counties responded to the blaze that erupted late on Tuesday. It sent flames shooting into the night sky and generated so much heat that fire engine lights melted.
Lightning might have been a factor but fire investigators have not been able to start looking for the cause, Woodford County emergency management director Drew Chandler said.
No injuries were reported. The fire was contained but was allowed to burn until midday on Wednesday.
“The longer it burns, the more of the distilled spirits burn with it,” Mr Chandler said. “So when they go to put it out, there will be less contaminated run-off that goes into a drinking-water tributary.”
By Wednesday afternoon, firefighters were dousing the warehouse’s charred remains with water to try to extinguish the fire. As they kept working, the focus turned to the environmental impact of the leaking bourbon.
The distiller hired an emergency clean-up crew and state environmental officials were coordinating efforts to control bourbon run-off into a nearby creek that flows into the Kentucky River, said John Mura, a spokesman for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.
“We do know there has been run-off enter the creek,” Mr Mura said. “And it has made its way into the Kentucky River.”
The run-off could have a “serious impact on aquatic life”, he said. It is expected to create “low dissolved oxygen levels,” which could result in substantial fish deaths.
State officials warned recreational users on the Kentucky River that run-off will result in water discoloration, foaming and an odour.
Beam Suntory officials said they are working with authorities to assess environmental effects.
The distilling company said the multi-story warehouse that burned contained “relatively young whiskey,” meaning it had not reached maturity for bottling for consumers. Bourbon acquires its colour and flavor while ageing for years in charred new oak barrels.
“Given the age of the lost whiskey, this fire will not impact the availability of Jim Beam for consumers,” the spirits company said.
The destroyed whiskey amounted to about 1% of Beam’s bourbon inventory, it said.
The distiller said it was grateful to the “courageous firefighters” who brought the blaze under control and kept it from spreading. A second warehouse sustained minor exterior damage but its contents remained intact, the company said.
Jim Beam is the world’s best-selling bourbon brand. The classic American whiskey brand is owned by Suntory Holdings Ltd, a Japanese beverage company.