It was nearly six months to the day since he had pushed his burning body across the floor to the fire  extinguisher, and Peter Martorelli was about to begin distilling again. With his hand on the switch to his new still, he thought of all the support he’d received from his wife, Tina, and the community around Lacey, New Jersey, since the accident.

“I was ready to pack it all in,” he admitted to me in a phone interview, “but the community was fantastic. If it wasn’t for them and my wife, I probably wouldn’t be back here doing this again.”

He turned on the still, and Island Beach Distillery was back in the spirits business.

“I built every piece of my distillery with my own hands,” Martorelli explained, growing impassioned. “The only thing I didn’t do was build my own still, because I didn’t know how, and it’s the one damn thing that went off on me!”

Martorelli is still processing his anger, which is also a host of complex emotions from fear to embarrassment to loneliness. It’s about more than a bad still nearly killing his dream—it nearly killed him, too, and he and his wife are still living with the trauma.

The incident occurred the afternoon of Saturday, December 23, 2017. He and Tina were alone at the shop, and he decided to run the still before they shut down for Christmas.

He had placed an empty rum bottle under his condenser to catch the runoff, then flipped the switch to start distilling. He walked away for a minute to pack a couple cases of rum that a friend had ordered, then returned to check on the runoff. He bent over to examine the bottle more closely, “and that’s when it let go.”

An explosion blew him several feet and knocked him onto his back. He looked up to see flames swirling around the bottom of the pot, which then launched into the air some eight feet and came crashing down.

“By that time, I knew I was on fire, because it got really, really hot,” he said. He tried to dampen the flames by rolling, but there was burning spirits on the floor and he kept hitting his head on equipment.

Tina thought he’d dropped a case of rum and came back to check on him. When she saw her husband in flames and the still on fire, she started screaming. She ran out to call 911.

Peter remembered the fire extinguisher by the door. His mind focused by adrenaline, he pushed himself, on his back, toward it. When Tina returned and recognized what he was doing, she handed him the extinguisher. Peter unloaded the whole unit onto himself and put out the flames.

There was another extinguisher by the back door, so he sent his wife around the building while he walked down a hallway alongside the distilling room. The floor had already burned out, but the still had not.

“I told my wife not to let the door close on me, then I walked in a couple feet and took a breath to see if my lungs would burn. Then I let out the whole of the other extinguisher.” That did the trick for most of the rest of the conflagration. Peter went outside.

The first responders had arrived, and it was only then he realized the intense pain he was in.

“I remember feeling the wind blowing, and my clothes rubbed against me, and it hurt.”

And the trauma wasn’t over. They had to force him, somewhat delirious, onto a gurney. He remembers screaming for his wife, but they wouldn’t let her come to him. They placed a fire blanket on him that felt like sandpaper against his skin, and they had to keep injecting increasingly powerful anesthetics to help manage his pain.

Martorelli was driven 90 minutes away to a burn center where he would spend the next 33 days.

“If There are Requirements,
I Didn’t Find Any”

“I thought seeing the still was going to get me emotional,” Martorelli said about the first day he returned to his distillery. It was the end of January. “But the still didn’t bother me. It was walking through the front door, seeing the fire extinguishers, all the damage to the floor. It was seeing everything that I had worked for and built that was destroyed.”

Martorelli felt defeated. He had researched every inch of his business, had bought from established businesses, gotten the proper regulatory approval, but the actual mechanics and safeguards of the still were the one area he knew the least about. The fire marshal report indicated that the still lacked any kind of release valves, and it was a buildup of pressure that caused the explosion.

Martorelli was angry with the manufacturer but also a little embarrassed, as if he should have known about the release valves. “I can’t put all the blame elsewhere,” he said, “but if there are [safety] requirements, I didn’t find any. The closest anybody got to checking out my equipment was the building inspector, who shook my bar and asked if it would break if someone danced on it.”

This is the rub of his and so many distillers’ situations: Even if you try to do your due diligence, the information available is sparse and disorganized because there are no real centralized regulations or standards.

“It’s up to each municipality,” Tom Cooper, founder of Colorado Gold Distillery, explained, “and the little cities don’t make you do much at all.”

Adequate, practical distillery safety has largely been the province of discussion forums, lawyers’ blogs and articles in trade publications like this—which is to say it has not been adequate at all.

The Cost of Poor Safety

ADI has compiled stories about several distillery accidents over the last few years (Distilling.com > Resources > Distillery Operations Safety). Even a quick survey of a few of them should scare you straight (should you need that).

The best-case scenario is that you only have building or equipment damage. The boiler fire at San Diego Distillery in Spring Valley, CA, in September of 2017 fortunately caused no injuries, but it did result in some $300,000 in building damage.

Unfortunately, it’s more likely someone will get hurt.

In Moore, OK, in 2014, Twister Distillery’s still overheated and began spewing alcohol into the air, which then ignited. The explosion sent distiller Jeff Thurmon to the hospital with second-degree burns over 52 percent of his body.

In November of 2017, three employees of B.J. Hooker’s Distillery were sent to the hospital after fumes ignited when one of them was mixing a drink with an immersion blender.

In the worst case, somebody can get killed. Assistant distiller Kyle Rogers died from injuries sustained in the Silver Trail Distillery explosion in 2015. Details of that tragic story can be found in the summer 2016 issue of Distiller.

Only Good Reasons to be Safe

Protecting your people should be reason enough to prioritize safety, but imagine, too, if customers were in the room on a tour. There are only good reasons to spend the time and money to be safe.

Distillers should also take corporate action to create and disseminate safety standards for the sake of protecting their own industry. An article in the March-April 2018 Journal of the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) argues that there aren’t enough or adequate fire code regulations for distilleries. It also reports that the International Code Council (ICC) plans to update the International Fire Code (IFC) with a new chapter on distilling by 2021.

Next Steps

The most important thing you can do is to educate yourself. Following this piece is an article detailing some of the science behind distillery hazards and a description of the “electric sombrero of death,” a design concept intended to help minimize the buildup of flammable vapors in the area immediately around your still.

You can also find a one-page safety checklist in the summer 2016 issue of Distiller. That list points you to an important document, the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) fire protection manual; it costs $150 and explains basic safety in simple terms.

Next, you should take the advice of Jay Rogers, distiller at Silver Trail and cousin to Kyle Rogers, and have an OSHA-trained boiler expert inspect your still. Robert Spruill of Sweetwater Farm & Distillery, Winchester, NH, hired a fire engineer to inspect his facility, and she educated the local fire chief in matters outside the chief’s experience.

Finally, local guilds should make safety a regular topic of discussion, and you should approach national bodies (such as ADI) with your questions and stories to help them understand how best to serve you.

It is in your interests to work with local authorities on this. Cooper points out that many municipalities simply don’t understand distilling; the bigger ones tend, then, to create extra standards to err on the side of caution. In other words, lack of industry standards means the potential for pointless standards from your city. Better to work with local authorities now to create a reasonable structure.

You can bet Peter Martorelli’s new still has several release valves and safety features. But he thinks of the accident every day, and it worries him to think that other small distillers may not even know they’re in danger. Educating this country’s craft distillers means we must talk about safety.