May 22, 2015 – While the Kentucky State Fire Marshal has not issued an official cause for the April 24 explosion that leveled Silver Trail Distillery, investigators have said that a “catastrophic failure” of the still was likely to blame. The explosion happened as distillers Jay and Kyle Rogers opened a door to the stillhouse, leaving both men critically burned. Kyle Rogers died from his injuries on May 11 at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, while Jay Rogers continues to recover in the hospital’s burn unit. Now, Jay Rogers and Silver Trail owner Spencer Balentine have filed a lawsuit against the maker of the still in Marshall County Circuit Court blaming the still’s construction for the explosion. Balentine issued his first public comments on the tragedy Saturday via the distillery’s Facebook page.
The still that exploded was not the original one used at Silver Trail that had been handed down through Spencer Balentine’s family of moonshiners, but a commercially-produced 300-gallon still built by Revenoor Stills in Yamhill, Oregon. The company had been in the business of supplying stills for beverage alcohol and fuel production for nearly five decades, but current owner Terry Wilhelm has shut the business down because of a family dispute over ownership.
Attempts to reach the Revenoor web site receive the response “Error establishing a database connection.” Terry Wilhelm told WhiskyCast’s Mark Gillespie in a telephone interview that with regards to the accusations made in Silver Trail’s Thursday Facebook post, “absolutely none of that was true.” While expressing his concern for the Silver Trail victims and their families, he said he has been locked out of the Revenoor shop on the family’s farm since February 23 with no access to the company’s equipment or records because of a family dispute over the company’s ownership.
“I started to pull the website and the phone number down on February 24th, not the day after the explosion…there hasn’t been anything done about a bankruptcy filing. I simply did it because there were some health and some personal family issues that were just getting to be too much along with the work with Revenoor. I simply wasn’t in a good mind to take any more orders…”
Listen to Mark Gillespie’s interview with Terry Wilhelm:
Wilhelm confirmed that Revenoor built the still for Silver Trail, but without access to his company’s records, could only estimate that the still was built “three or four years ago.” His stills carry a one-year warranty, and Wilhelm told a Kentucky lawyer who contacted him after the explosion that the still was out of warranty. He said he has not been contacted by the Kentucky investigators, but is willing to cooperate in any way that he can with the investigation. As for the possible cause of the explosion, Wilhelm said his pot stills are not designed to build up pressure in any way, and the only way one could build up pressure inside the still would be for the outlet tube to become clogged or blocked. The company has produced “thousands of stills” over its 47 years in the business, and Wilhelm said he is not aware of any accidents or explosions involving those stills since he bought the company from its founder in 2000.
A search of the docket for the US Bankruptcy Court in Portland shows no filing for Revenoor Stills, though the Oregon Secretary of State’s business registry shows an “administrative dissolution” for the company on April 24, the same day as the explosion. Typically, the state uses that term when a business fails to file annual reports or other required documents after a set period of time. Wilhelm said the annual renewal for Revenoor was due March 24, and the state automatically dissolves any business that fails to file within a 30-day grace period.
WhiskyCast has not been able to discuss Wilhelm’s comments or the investigation with the Kentucky State Fire Marshal’s office because of the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
Editor’s note: Tips of the hat to Fred Minnick for originally reporting Silver Trail’s warning, and to WPSD-TV in Paducah for the PDF file of the lawsuit. This story has been updated to include images of the Silver Trail Distillery Facebook posts, additional details of the lawsuit, and Wilhelm’s claim that he is not aware of any other accidents or explosions involving the company’s stills. Note that in civil lawsuits, court filings only represent one side’s version of the case and should not be viewed as proven facts until argued and ruled upon in court.
This story was updated to remove a link to a Facebook post by Silver Trail Distillery that has been deleted from the distillery’s page.