Spirits & Liqueurs Bourbon

Have Kentucky's Historic Rickhouses Become the Bourbon Industry’s Greatest Liability?

O.Z. Tyler rickhouse collapse in Owensboro, Ky.

For the true bourbon lover, the experience of standing inside of an old Kentucky rickhouse can verge on the religious. The air is thick with angel’s share from decades-old barrels, the racks worn thin from generations of use. These historic buildings hold generations of whiskey knowledge, its deepest secrets, passed down from distiller to distiller. The best ones contribute as much to the taste of a whiskey as any person who passes through its doors.

On such hallowed ground, you’re likely to spot a plumb bob protecting the precious cargo from the building itself. The 4,000-year-old technology, used by the ancient Egyptians, helps protect warehouses from collapse. The design is simple: A weight is hung from the end of a string, tied to a central support, over a target drawn on the floor. If the building shifts, due to weakening supports or one of the many sinkholes that dot the Bluegrass State, the plumb bob moves off center from the target. If the problem isn’t addressed, the warehouse could eventually cave in, resulting in millions of dollars of lost distillate, environmental damage and a public relations nightmare. It’s the kind of disaster that can rock an industry.

Over the last two years, three such accidents have sparked introspection among Kentucky distilleries. In June and July 2018, Barton 1792’s Warehouse 30 suffered a two-part collapse sending 18,000 barrels to the ground in Bardstown. A year later, in June, 2019, storm winds took down part of Warehouse H along with 4,500 barrels at O.Z. Tyler in Owensboro. A month later, a lightning strike on a Jim Beam warehouse caused a fire that burned 45,000 barrels of whiskey over four days.

Structural Aging

While the incidents are unrelated, they speak to broad concerns about warehouse vulnerability. “Everybody has been on high alert the last six months,” says O.Z. Tyler master distiller Jacob Call.

The weather events at Jim Beam and O.Z. Tyler can be considered “acts of god,” unforeseeable disasters covered by extensive insurance policies. (Barton 1792 has yet to release the official cause of the collapse, and parent company Sazerac declined to comment for this story.) But even as warehouses are battered by storms from the outside, they may also be crumbling from within.

Jeff Phelps is the CEO of StructuRight, a Louisville company that specializes in structural health monitoring systems for distilleries. “A lot of these buildings that were built 70 years ago have reached or exceeded their serviceable lifespan,” he says. “Just like your socks wear out, so do buildings. It’s time to replace them.”

For many legacy brands, established decades, even centuries, ago, a large swath of inherited architecture from the 1930s and ’40s is reaching senility. “This is going to be something that’s confronting the industry as a whole,” says Phelps.

The problems are not uniform across distilleries. O.Z. Tyler, for instance, has a special basement designed to catch falling whiskey before it can leak into the surrounding area. The basin, a product of the 1960s, prevented the sort of environmental damage and governmental fines that Barton and Jim Beam both faced when their products contaminated nearby waterways.

Natural Causes

Distilleries may face even greater threats from mother nature. Severe storms over the last 40 years have increased the number of tornadoes in Kentucky, causing researchers to dub large sections of the Southeast a new Dixie Alley.

Eric Gregory, the president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA), says distilleries are working to defend themselves with new technologies. Heaven Hill, which suffered a historic fire during a storm in 1996, is experimenting with advanced lightning protection, while O.Z. Tyler has partnered with StructuRight to install “smart plumb bobs” in warehouses to monitor structural shifts and environmental threats.

Oversight

In 2010, just as bourbon began to boom, the KDA established the first-ever regulations for distillery warehouse construction in Kentucky, ensuring future facilities were up to modern standards. But the vast majority of existing rickhouses, many of which date back decades to the days of Prohibition, were grandfathered into the regulations, with no requirements for companies to update them.

Gregory argues that older warehouses may actually be more secure than they seem, thanks to superior construction techniques and hardier wood and brick. After the incident at Barton, the KDA also partnered with Buzick Construction (which builds the majority of new rickhouses in the state) to develop a maintenance checklist to help members complete routine inspections of old buildings. Gregory says that increased scrutiny has led some distilleries to retire warehouses or transition them into nonoperative tourist sites.

With oversight coming largely from within the industry and inspections falling to distillery staff, it wouldn’t be hard for even the most well-intentioned operations to shirk costly updates. Despite their vulnerabilities, old rickhouses remain valuable in many ways, from literal storage space and tourist dollars to prestige for a historic brand, as well as their existential role in creating flavorful whiskey.

Adoption of New Technologies

Gregory admits that Kentucky distillers feel a special connection to their historic rickhouses, noting a common saying: “Egypt has its pyramids. Kentucky has its rickhouses.” But he pushes back against the notion that economic strategy or romanticism could inhibit distilleries from decommissioning unstable buildings. “At the end of the day, distilleries are businesses, and the distilleries will make the right business decision when they think it’s time to retire a warehouse and build a new one,” he says.

Still, when rising consumer demand meets outdated infrastructure, the results can be devastating. “There has been a lot of deferred maintenance in the industry,” says Phelps. “You have to prioritize what it is that you’re going to fix, what asset you’re going to fix first.” No one needs to convince distilleries that they should modernize, and many distillers are already familiar with the technologies available. The hurdle is simply adoption.

With environmentally conscious consumers watching how brands behave and another tornado season always waiting around the corner, distilleries have some tough decisions to make. The recent accidents may spur a shift in the industry, moving warehouse updates to the top of the to-do list, starting with the plumb bob. “They used it for 4,000 years,” says Phelps. “It’s high time we employ a new technology.”