I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Fire destroyed a Jim Beam warehouse filled with 45,000 barrels of bourbon whiskey in July 2019, reminding us that liquor is a highly combustible substance.
The Bundaberg Rum Fire (1936)
Bundaberg is a town on the Burnett River in Queensland, Australia, and it is home of the Bundaberg Rum Distillery.
Early one November evening in 1936, the plant was struck by lightning and it started to burn. Inside were 10,000 gallons of flammable rum and other spirits that provided the fuel for a massive inferno. Drums exploded and a large crowd gathered to watch the blaze.
Miraculously, there were no deaths or injuries among the people who worked in the distillery, but there were fatalities among the wildlife in the Burnett River. Burning rum leaked into the river and covered the water from bank to bank with a blue flame.
The next day, the river banks were littered with dead fish. There were salmon, sharks, and 200-pound gropers. It’s said that every table in the district groaned under the weight of a dinner of fish marinated in rum.
Fish became the unwitting victims of a fire at the Wild Turkey Bourbon warehouse in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. More than 17,000 barrels were aging in the building, some of it 15 years old.
Burning whiskey set nearby woods ablaze and carried on until it reached the Kentucky River, where it caused the death of more than 200,000 fish. Local people joked that happy hour was down by the river—BYOB—Bring Your Own Bucket.
The Cheapside Bonded Warehouse (1960)
A huge liquor warehouse in Glasgow was the scene of one of Britain’s most deadly peacetime fires. On the evening of March 28, 1960, a fire was reported in the building and crews rushed to the scene; in all, 450 firefighters attended.
The warehouse contained more than a million gallons of rum and whisky. Within half an hour, a huge explosion occurred, blowing out the walls of the building. Glasgow Live reports that “Tons of masonry crumbled and fell, claiming 19 lives. Whisky barrels crashed to the ground and burst into flames, sending streams of burning liquor flowing into the streets—and causing a toxic build-up of fumes inside the building.”
The fire burned out of control for hours and engulfed neighbouring buildings. It enhanced Glasgow’s reputation as “The Tinderbox City,” because of the frequency of devastating fires in the community.
The Scotsman notes that “Another fire, mere blocks away from Cheapside Street in an upholstery factory, killed 22 people who were trapped in the building.” That was in 1968 and the BBC reported in June 2018 “Sadly, it still applies more than half a century on.”
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The Gorbals Whisky Flood (1906)
The Loch Katrine Distillery was in Glasgow’s Gorbals district, a place of decrepit tenements and soul-crushing poverty.
Early one November morning in 1906, one of its huge vats collapsed releasing 50,000 gallons of hot whisky. The torrent took out two more vats containing whisky in various stages of production. In total 150,000 gallons of spirits swirled through the distillery and out into the neighbouring street.
There was one fatality and a number of injuries. History does not record if anyone said, “It’s a wee bit early for me, but if it’s free I don’t mind a little road grit with my tipple.”
The distillery closed down the following year.
The Great Boston Molasses Flood (1919)
Boston, Massachusetts, was the scene of an entirely different and far more tragic distillery flood.
United States Industrial Alcohol (USIA) had a plant in the city’s north end and on the property was a huge tank that contained more than two million gallons of sugary goo from the Caribbean. The molasses was destined to be turned into munitions and alcohol for liquor.
January 15, 1919, was an unusually warm day for the time of year and, in the afternoon, the molasses tank started to groan and creak. It had done this before and management had ignored warnings that the tank was unsafe. But, this time was different.
The Boston Post said witnesses described “A rumble, a hiss—some say a boom and a swish—and the wave of molasses swept out.” The tsunami of thick syrup was eight feet high and swept through the neighbourhood at about 35 miles per hour.
The path of destruction took out utility poles, buildings, and elevated train steel supports. People and horses drowned in the glutinous tide. The death toll was 21 people, with another 150 suffering injuries. Nobody recorded the equine casualties.
Lawsuits against USIA started. The company said it was not the shoddy construction that was at fault, it was sabotaged by some dastardly Italian anarchists. After years of litigation, the company was ordered to pay the equivalent of $8 million in today’s money to the families of victims.
- It’s whisky if describing the beverage made in Scotland. It’s whiskey, with an “e,” if it comes from Ireland or America. You’ve got to love the English language.
- Moonshine carries with it its own particular brand of danger, apart from the possibility of the still blowing up. If the illegal hooch maker is clumsy, customers get to drink methanol rather than ethanol. Here’s The Smithsonian Magazine, “Methanol poisoning is a dreadful way to go. Even if you manage to avoid death, blindness and brain damage are common in survivors.” In India in 2000, 169 people died after drinking bad liquor, and a similar product took out 20 people in the Czech Republic in 2012. It’s not called rotgut without reason.
- According to The Louisville Courier-Journal, “The bourbon industry is rough. Cut-throat competition, batches that fail after years in the warehouse and even tornadoes of fire are hazards of the job.”
Homemade Liquor Disasters
- “Great Gorbals Whisky Flood of 1906.” Ben Johnson, Historic-uk.com, undated.
- “Bundaberg Distillery Fire.” Mick Roberts, Timegents.com, January 13, 2019.
- “Cheapside Street Fire – One of Britain’s Worst Peacetime Fire Disasters Remembered.” Christina O’Neill, Glasgow Live, November 11, 2019.
- “Lost Glasgow: Cheapside Street Fire.” The Scotsman, July 24, 2012.
- “Wild Turkey Warehouse Fire Mixes Whiskey and Water in Kentucky.” The Baltimore Sun, May 11, 2000.
- “The Great Molasses Flood of 1919.” Evan Andrews, History.com, January 15, 2019.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor