Warlike destruction came to Louisville this week. When I saw the Whiskey Row ashes, the smoldering charred wood, facades holding on by historic bricks, I was reminded of the carnage of war and my personal moments in it. I was taken back to a time I once tried to forget, only to fail and be forced to deal with the memories. In Iraq, I was an Army photographer. I walked through the streets and villages, and in homes, with an M-16 slung from my side and a Nikon D1X firmly gripped, always ready to capture combat or whatever.
Halfway through my 2004 deployment, I lost count of how many car bombs I photographed and eventually became numb to the site of splattered human remains. On June 24, 2004, I photographed two car bombs and later came under fire, as an RPG headed right toward me, only to bounce—a lucky dud round—and fly over my head, sparing my life.
My war past has collided with the present. It began with the Silver Trail Distillery fire on April 24 that burned the Hardin, Ky., distillery to the ground. The still suffered a “massive” failure and exploded, injuring cousins Jay and Kyle Rogers. Kyle would later die from injuries sustained; and as I blogged about this, I kept wondering why and how, and genuinely felt pain for the families and the Silver Trail Distillery, which is currently suing the still maker. (You can contribute to their families through the Kentucky Distillers Association’s Silver Trail fund.)
During all my efforts to build awareness for the Silver Trail victims, I still could not believe what had happened. People are not supposed to die in distilleries. Tragedy is expected in war; good times are expected in whiskey.
On July 6, Louisville’s famed Whiskey Row caught fire. Tears fell down my face, as I saw the image. How many people were inside? Is this the end of a beautiful historic district? As the thick flames rose high, smoke encompassing the entire district and neighbors were evacuated, I hoped for the best, but feared the worst.
Nobody was hurt. Thank God!
When I finally arrived at the Whiskey Row buildings—111, 113 and 115 West Main Street—the next morning, the smoldering continued and firefighters still actively fought the fire. Brown-Forman co-owned the buildings and planned its new $45 million Old Forester distillery next door.
Old Forester had yet to begin construction and was merely a hole in the ground, so it was never at risk. The historic facades remain in place and the Louisville mayor remains optimistic the 1850s-era building fronts can be saved, but firefighters told me it’s unknown whether they’ll hold. They also said that there’s no way of knowing what caused the fire until they’re able to safely get inside to study the debris, which may take a few days.
For now, the firefighters valiantly save Whiskey Row and deserve the nation’s absolute gratitude for trying to save Louisville’s history. Brown-Forman said plans remain unchanged and it hopes to hold an Old Forester groundbreaking later this summer.
Bourbon’s troubles weren’t over. One day after the fire, the National Weather Service reported 95 mph winds in the Bardstown area. Microbursts caused severe wind damage to Heaven Hill’s Warehouse O and moderate damage to Warehouse P. O’s roof folded over like a pancake, half dangling over the side, the other half splayed open just feet way. About 1/3 of P’s roof was sliced open like a tin can. They reminded me of buildings pelted by rockets and mortars.
Inside, though, was a different story. It was a magnificent and rare look at a roofless bourbon warehouse. Sunlight and rain trickled down through both warehouses, and the open roof gave the impression that the hand of God could come in at any moment and swipe a few honey barrels.
The sides slightly wobbled when pushed without the roof stabilization. I can’t count how many times I’ve been inside booze warehouses; they all feel stiff and sturdy with an occasional crick and crack. Warehouse O, an 18,900-barrel warehouse, was springy, yet eerily didn’t make a sound. Perhaps I was just looking up the whole time, amazed by the rays of light seeping through the cracks, and ignored the normal rickhouse sounds. Aromas also normally fill a warehouse, but not in O. With an open roof and significant moisture, Warehouse O’s normal caramel and vanilla sweetness were lessened by airflow and dampness.
Amazingly, although I was not allowed to walk into the ricks for safety reasons, I could not see or smell busted barrels. In fact, only a couple casks appeared to be out of place, and they were half in the rack. I saw barrels with 2004 stencils and the warehouse manager said the oldest barrel was likely 20 years old, so there’s no doubt that this was an important warehouse to the Heaven Hill inventory.
The whiskey is safe and will likely go into the normal production, with a Heaven Hill spokesperson saying it’s “highly unlikely” they would create a special project similar to Buffalo Trace’s Warehouse C “cyclone” bourbon.
As I sought information in the Heaven Hill story, I felt different than during the Silver Trail or Whiskey Row tragedies. At some point, I realized the roofless warehouse circled back to the whiskey and the numbness of carnage did not take hold. It was all about the bourbon.
Bourbon is beautiful. I love tasting it, explaining the subtle nuances in a wheated bourbon vs. the meatier high-rye bourbons, and I love digging deep in archives and interviewing production officials to find editorial nuggets for bourbon fans. Bourbon has become my passion, a career choice that I hope spans my lifetime.
And I sincerely hope this is the last time that Kentucky distillers must endure the ashes and death meant for war.