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Explosion rocks distillery

September 26th, 2012

The peaceful morning in Gardiner was shattered Monday as multiple explosions rocked Tuthilltown Spirits, a distillery located on Grist Mill Lane.

Around 10 a.m., an employee was working in the office area at the far end of the distillery barn when he reportedly heard a sound–an explosion. When he investigated, flames were already rolling up the walls and he immediately moved to evacuate the building.

Assistant Chief Brian Stiscia of the Gardiner Fire Department was in charge of the scene Monday and said multiple explosions had occurred, blowing out the side of the building and sending glass and other debris flying dozens of feet.

The building was successfully evacuated prior to the arrival of the fire department and there were no injuries reported.

The fire resulted in a second alarm, drawing a response from half a dozen volunteer fire companies. Despite the explosions and the presence of a great deal of accelerant, the fire was contained and knocked down fairly quickly.

“It’s amazing that we were able to save the building,” said Stiscia. “The damage isn’t great for what it is, with that much accelerant in the building. With that amount of accelerant, for the firefighters to do what they did was phenomenal. They all did a very good job.”

Tuthilltown Spirits is the state’s first legal whiskey distillery since the days of Prohibition, making handmade spirits from local produce. After the owners converted one of the former Tuthilltown Gristmill’s granaries into the distillery, they began producing spirits in 2004. Their business has since grown with a partnership with W. Grant & Sons of Scotland, one of the largest whiskey producers in the world.

The distillery room, where the fire began, contains three stills.

“It could have been a lot worse, because we’re dealing with a volatile fluid,” said Ralph Erenzo, co-owner of Tuthilltown Spirits. “If the fire had been worse, or the fire departments had not responded as quickly as they did, it could have been more intense. It would still have been confined to the building, but a lot more intense.”

Fire investigators at the scene determined that the vats were the ignition source for the explosions. While the fire is still under investigation, Stiscia said the preliminary cause of the fire seems to be electrical in nature. Investigators were looking at the wiring, with the belief that a short had ignited vapors in the building.

Erenzo said Tuesday that despite the explosions and the fire, the damage was “far less than anticipated.” All of the equipment in the building appeared to still be intact, and once cleaned and resealed, might still be operable. In addition, he was very thankful that none of the employees were injured.

“We were very fortunate, extremely fortunate. Everyone did exactly the right thing,” said Erenzo.

While he knows they have a major undertaking ahead of them to clean up the damage, Erenzo is grateful that the fire was confined to the distilling room. It appears that the cupola on top of the building directed the flames up and out of the building, keeping it from spreading. The other rooms in the building are still intact.

Erenzo said they are in the process of having an engineer verify the structure is sound and specialists inspect the stills to make sure there is no hidden damage.

Tuthilltown Spirits’ inventory was stored in a completely separate building and escaped the fire unscathed, as did the shop. While the shop is once again open, the tours of the distillery are obviously canceled until further notice.

Erenzo said the damage so far is less than anticipated and in speaking with his insurance company he believes they will be back on track fairly quickly.

“It’s a difficult interruption and a shock to everyone here,” said Erenzo. “It’s hard to watch something you’ve worked toward for so long, worked so hard to bring to fruition, just suddenly burn up. But we’ll be back.”

The Gardiner Fire Department was assisted by the New Paltz, Modena, Shawangunk Valley, Clintondale and Plattekill Fire Departments, as well as the Ulster County Sheriff.

By Rachel Coleman

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