Making whisky is not without its hazards, distillation can be a dangerous business. Then there’s the challenge of storing thousands of wooden casks of flammable liquid safely while they mature. Inevitably, things sometimes go wrong. Ian Buxton looks into the explosive history of distillery fires.
If you’ve ever visited a distillery warehouse of recent construction, you’ll have noticed that it’s festooned with all kinds of safety precautions in the event of fire: smoke sensors; sophisticated monitoring and alarm systems (frequently linked to the local fire station) and substantial fire walls to prevent the flames taking control of the whole building. There’s generally a significant gap between modern buildings, both to prevent the fire spreading and to allow firefighters access to all sides of the structures. Different vintages of production are spread across a number of warehouses to prevent the possibility of the total loss of a specific age of whisky.
All permanent staff will have had training and there will be fire-fighting equipment on site, though possibly out of sight of the visitors. Health & safety legislation quite properly lays great stress on mitigating risks and training staff in good practice or, if the worst should happen, evacuation procedures. For all the care, though, there are still accidents (and sometimes accidents with a still), such as the recent fire at Masons in Yorkshire. For some reason, the USA has in recent years been particularly prone to significant conflagrations: Heaven Hill (1996), Wild Turkey (2000), Jim Beam (2003 and again in 2019) and, tragically, Silver Trail in Kentucky where in 2015 a young distiller was killed and a colleague severely injured.
Fortunately, fatalities are rare these days and usually only whisky is lost. Sadly, it has not always been so. Glasgow was the scene of one of Britain’s worst ever peacetime fire services disaster when, on 28 March 1960 the Cheapside Street whisky bond caught fire and collapsed, killing 11 firemen. The blaze took a week to fully extinguish and, at its peak, required 450 firemen, 30 pumping appliances, five turntable ladders, four support vehicles, and a fire boat on the River Clyde. There were six bravery awards, including two awards of the George Medal.
At this time, Glasgow still had a considerable number of operational warehouses in the city itself though. Following the fire, most were relocated (the buildings still presented hazards, though. Failure to remove security bars from the windows at an old bond in James Watt Street led to the death of 22 employees of an upholstery workshop just eight years later.)
Clearly earlier lessons had not been learned. Prior to world war one there were disastrous fires in both Aberdeen and Dundee. In September 1904, the North of Scotland Distillery in Aberdeen was totally destroyed by fire and some 700,000 gallons of whisky (around two year’s production) was lost. Though the distillery did reopen it proved hard to recover and it eventually closed in 1913, ironically just as Port Dundas Distillery in Glasgow, which had lain dormant since a fire ten years earlier, was recommissioned.
A little further down Scotland’s east coast, in Dundee, a devastating fire broke out in July 1906 in the James Watson & Co. bond at the junction of Seagate and the aptly-named Candle Lane. Then one of the largest distillers in the country and a major force in the industry, Watson’s never really recovered from the disruption to their business and the company and remaining stocks were eventually acquired by the DCL (forerunners of today’s Diageo). The neighbouring blending house of John Robertson & Son was also badly affected by the fire as flaming alcohol was seen raining down on surrounding streets and buildings, setting light to a sugar warehouse, jute factory and printers.
So bad was the inferno that firemen had to be called from Edinburgh to help fight it. The fire, which burned for 12 hours, has been described as the most destructive in the history of Dundee. An eyewitness recorded it sending “rivers of burning whisky” through the city, the spectacle attracting a thousand strong crowd of spectators. According to the Dundee Courier, the glow was visible from Brechin and Montrose (about 30 miles away) and people on Dundee’s outskirts could read newspapers out of doors at midnight.
While the six storey bond, several other buildings and around 1,000,000 gallons of spirits were lost, there were mercifully no fatalities recorded – and local postcard company Valentines were quickly on the scene to record the damage in a series of rare and now collectable postcards.
So, next time you visit a distillery and your guide prohibits flash photography try to remember these tragic events in Scotland’s distilling history and confine the mixture of fire and whisky to a Blue Blazer cocktail when you return home!
Though he has neither a beard nor any visible tattoos or piercings, Ian Buxton is well-placed to write about drinks. A former marketing director of one of Scotland’s favourite single malts, his is a bitter-sweet love affair with Scotland’s national drink – not to mention gin and rum, or whatever the nearest PR is pouring. Once, apparently without noticing, he bought a derelict distillery. Follow his passionate, authentic hand-crafted artisanal journey on the Master of Malt blog. Or just buy his books. It’s what he really wants.