Contractors and distillery employees at O.Z. Tyler's wind-wrecked rickhouse west of Owensboro have accomplished what Mother Nature began.

Warehouse H, the bourbon barrel storage facility damaged by heavy winds last month, has been entirely deconstructed, and in its place remains a disarrayed pile of barrels several stories high left to be sorted and stored in the near-capacity grounds around the plant, officials say.

According to O.Z. Tyler Master Distiller Jacob Call, however, the unkempt pile of barrels represents a "much safer" scenario for the environment and workers below.

"The risks of contamination, lightning strikes or additional collapses have been greatly diminished," Call said Friday. "It's a much, much safer area now, which was our goal."

The southwest corner of the rickhouse gave way during an early-morning thunderstorm on June 17, scattering nearly 4,000 barrels of bourbon into a tangled heap of wood and metal debris below. The partial collapse puzzled distillery experts, who say warehouses that employ ricking systems to store barrels usually don't leave much standing when they fail. That's why the high-stakes recovery operation O.Z. Tyler put in place to carefully dismantle the aging whiskey warehouse was the first of its kind.

Commercial demolition group Klenk Co., of Evansville, was left with the daunting task of plucking individual barrels of bourbon out one at a time while slowly tearing away at the building's precarious support structure from the outside in.

Now that step is complete, Call said, contractors and employees can move in closer to clean off barrels, salvage liquid from those few that are damaged, and store all of it in the remaining six rickhouses on site.

That's a challenge in and of itself, he added, because the distillery sits at about 95% capacity right now, so a distant but similar operation in Ohio County to build nine new palletized barrel warehouses hangs in the balance.

"We definitely need it to stop raining so we can get our warehouses in Ohio County done," he said. "We've got some foundations in place, and we've poured some concrete there, but we need it to be dry enough to finish the construction process."

Luckily, the distillery has been able to ship some big orders since the partial collapse in June, opening up a little bit more of space at the plant near Texas Avenue and Ebach Street. But without a break in rainy weather, Call says, the operation could be pressed for space — and, subsequently, time — again.

Amy Grossman, a spokeswoman for the distillery, said environmental and emergency response officials remain pleased with the progress contractors have made. She said most of the barrels that have so far been extracted from the heap are in good condition. Few, she said, have suffered any damage or leaked young whiskey.

Austin Ramsey, 270-691-7302, aramsey@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @austinrramsey

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