History

Keeper's of the flame

Gavin D Smith continues his look at great distillery fires.
By Gavin D. Smith
In the last issue we saw how Banff distillery seemed to be particularly unlucky when it came to fires and explosions, but it was not alone. Another distillery that seems to have suffered more than its fair share of such calamities is Dalmore, located at Alness, on the Cromarty Firth in Easter Ross.On July 1st 1911 a fire destroyed two acres of bonded warehouses and 63,874 gallons of whisky was lost, much of it flowing in flames into the Cromarty Firth, which became a sea of fire. Six years later, as the First World War raged, the United States Navy took over Dalmore and proceeded to use it for the manufacture of deep-sea mines By the time they returned the site to its owners, the Mackenzie family, in 1920, it had suffered an explosion and fire, and negotiations regarding compensation payments dragged on for several years.The fates had not yet finished with Dalmore, however, and in April 1964 the smaller of the distillery’s two still houses was struck by fire.The late Drew Sinclair worked at Dalmore for 40 years, finally serving as manager, and shortly before his death in 2006 he recalled that “What happened was that the chap working in the wee stillhouse just left the vent open at the top of the still, by mistake. It was coal fires then for the stills, and he left his charging valve open and the vent valve open and the spirit just poured out, down onto the fire and it set alight.” Today’s Dalmore manager is Andrew Scott, who says “I think that historically, whisky was not perceived as a dangerous substance but solely as a drink. After all, if it was dangerous, you would not sell it in public places in open glasses. That perception has changed and now alcohol manufacture is recognised as the making of a highly flammable liquid.“The industry has been proactive during the last 30 years in working together to prevent fires and explosions occurring by either making sure alcohol is not released to catch fire or by using specialised equipment that cannot cause ignition.” Of course, when a distillery such as Dalmore is damaged by fire it is not simply a case of rebuilding the fabric and installing standardised new plant. Crucially, the stills of every distillery are unique, as owners Diageo note in relation to Talisker on the Isle of Skye, which, like Dalmore, suffered a stillhouse fire during the 1960s.“Production ceased…when the stillhouse was destroyed by fire on 22nd November 1960 and in a major exercise to conserve the unique flavour of Talisker, the five stills which had been lost in the fire were replaced with exact copies when the distillery reopened in 1962.” Of course, whisky-related fires do not always concern actual distilleries, with bonded warehouses full of flammable spirit providing terrifying potential for blazes, and one of the largest conflagrations ever seen in the city of Dundee took place in the bonded warehouses of James Watson & Co Ltd in July 1906.As a contemporary newspaper account noted: “The bonds were filled and the outbreak at once assumed serious proportions, the fire being spread in all directions by the burning spirit which not only freely passed the double-iron doors, but also found its way through solid walls between the Watson’s Bond and premises belonging to Messrs John Robertson & Son Ltd.” The overall damage was estimated at £400,000, which was a very large sum for the time.Despite the destruction of property, at least no lives were lost in the Watson’s fire, which sadly was not the case in what remains the worst disaster for the fire service in Britain. Another bonded warehouse filled with whisky, this time belonging to Arbuckle Smith & Co Ltd, in Glasgow’s Anderston Quay area caught fire on 28th March 1960.Fourteen men from the Glasgow Fire Service and five men from the city’s Salvage Corps were killed when a huge explosion blew out the entire side of the building at 1 Cheapside Street, sending hundreds of tons of masonry crashing onto the crews below.Three fire appliances were buried under the rubble and the fire took a week to extinguish.Inevitably, Scotland has not been alone in suffering from whisky-related fires, and the Kentucky heartland of US distilling has seen its fair share of incidents over the years.The most recent, and most spectacular, concerned Heaven Hill, located one and a half miles from Bardstown. Dubbed “The worst distillery blaze in Kentucky history,” the Heaven Hill fire broke out on the 7th November 1996, with the first flames being reported around 2pm.The distillery boiler operator Scott Cederholm told The Kentucky Standard newspaper that it took less than 15 minutes from the initial shout of ‘fire’ until the timber-framed, metal-clad Warehouse I, the first to catch light, turned into a holocaust.“You could feel the heat, and we were 400 to 600 feet away,” Cederholm reported. Indeed, experts estimated that the 50 to 75mph winds blowing at the time, helping to spread the blaze, increased the calorific heat intensity to five times that of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, a decade earlier.Ultimately, seven of Heaven Hill’s 44 warehouses, containing a total of 90,000 barrels of maturing whiskey, were lost, and the fire eventually also destroyed much of the production plant as well, with a river of burning spirit flowing down the hillside into the distillery.In the immediate aftermath of the fire, and in the spirit of whiskey-making communities all over the world, neighbouring distillers Brown-Forman and Jim Beam provided production capacity to keep the Heaven Hill operation in business.Ultimately, the decision was to taken to purchase Diageo’s modern Bernheim distillery, which was surplus to their requirements, rather than re-build on the Heaven Hill site, which, nonetheless, is still used for warehousing purposes.As the Heaven Hill conflagration demonstrates, while whisky-making practices and associated safety procedures have changed, strong spirit and naked flames will always be a potentially devastating combination.However, as Dalmore’s Andrew Scott says, “We’ve come a long way from the times where the distillery manager would smoke a pipe while taking the spirit charge and open flames were commonplace in the still house!”