Make safety sexy

It was the Worshipful Company of Distillers’ annual dinner at the Lord Mayor of London’s residence Mansion House a few weeks ago, and as a junior member of the Gin Guild I was permitted to attend, provided I promised not to pinch any silverware and did a little light sweeping afterwards.

I was seated next to a lovely person whose distillery recently burned down, in no way, it must be said, due to any fault on their part. It did, however, set me thinking. Distilleries are opening left, right and center. The last time London had this many distilleries was the 1600s, and my native Ireland now boasts 35 either already operating or in construction; there used to be just two. Who’s ensuring that distilleries are safe?

In general, EU health-and-safety rules are robust, but the entire framework was designed around large-scale distilleries where the in-house staff probably had more specific distilling safety knowledge than any inspectors, born of their long expertise in making hundreds of thousands of cases per year. Even then, accidents occur; just this year a Sazerac-owned distillery lost 120, 000 gallons of bourbon when a support strut on a 55,000-gallon beer fermenter collapsed, and a fire at Jim Beam cost that company about 45, 000 barrels of bourbon which went up in smoke or into the nearby river.

The industry, however, is tilting towards smaller distilleries with less expert staff and an even more vulnerable aspect: integrated bars and visitor centers.  Distillery tourism is booming, from Carlow to Kentucky to Tasmania, and a busy bar attached to a distillery can take $30, 000 per week in revenue, often enough to finance all the other operations of the distillery and thus a vital element of a start-up craft distillery.  That puts an awful lot of cocktail-slurping punters in close proximity to large amounts of alcohol being boiled in huge metal containers; enough to send a shudder down any chemistry teacher’s spine. Its not even so much the actual operation of a still that offers the greatest potential for danger; everyone knows to be careful around a still. It’s that the laissez-faire attitude of many smaller distilleries is their charm; here, stroll along the rows of fermenters, have a peep in the still, taste the ordinariorunning off the still. But a distillery, even a small one, is an industrial production plant which must adhere to the highest standards of safety, and safety-first has to be a company-wide mentality, not a checklist to be adhered to (or not).

I think we’ll eventually see as many distillery-bars in city-center locations as we have brewpubs now; there is even now a gin distillery in a bar in Gatwick Airport’s North Terminal. Even if all these “distilleries” have is a few small roto-vaps and water cookers, the potential for disaster is high, so perhaps we need to make the profession of safety as sexy as the profession of distilling – once profoundly unsexy - has become?