Peaks Mill, Kentucky
Words by: Carlly Chun
On the 16th of July 2013, the world of American whiskey lost an icon in the shape of Elmer T. Lee, veteran distiller of Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, following a short illness.
Elmer was born in 1919 and raised on a rural tobacco farm in Peaks Mill, Kentucky, by his mother after his father died of typhoid fever in 1931. After high school he enrolled to the University of Kentucky but withdrew to volunteer as a radar bombardier when American entered into the war.
He joined the distillery in 1949, having returned to university after the war and gained his engineering degree. Working his way up the ladder he joined as maintenance engineer, was promoted to plant superintendent in 1966, responsible for all plant operations and reporting to the plant manager. He then became manager of the plant in 1969, staying in post until his retirement in 1985, and thereafter remaining active in the distillery as Master Distiller Emeritus until his death.
Elmer was crucial in developing the idea of single barrel whiskeys. Elmer had been apprentice to Colonel Albert Blanton, president of the then George T. Stagg Distillery, and recalled how Col. Blanton would entertain friends and special guests by serving them bourbon from Warehouse H., choosing whiskeys from the middle section of the warehouse. Elmer turned this into a commercial proposition in 1984 by selecting the finest barrels from the same warehouse and naming the bottlings after his inspiration, Blanton's.
It was a move that would pave the way for other distilleries to develop their own premium bourbons. Perhaps more importantly, the move helped reinvigorate the wider bourbon market, which had been in decline and become unfashionable. With the upmarket single barrel bottling targeting discerning drinkers, popularity for the drink began to grow again.
He would be honoured with his own eponymous single barrel bottling in 1986, the year after his official retirement, making him one of only three living master distillers who had a bourbon named after them.
But Elmer never really retired, says Mark Brown, president and CEO of the distillery. "Every Tuesday we could see Elmer making his rounds at the Distillery in his trademark cap, signing bottles, posters, and other memorabilia at the Gift Shop, visiting his friends in Blanton's Bottling Hall, and tasting bourbons (for quality control purposes!) in the lab.
"Elmer was always ready to offer advice, and was a wealth of information that many of us relied on, myself included. Harlen Wheatley would inquire with Elmer when stuck on a mechanical problem, and any historical questions about the Distillery always went to Elmer, who, with his razor sharp memory, could invariably answer.
"To all of us, Elmer was a friend, a mentor, and a trusted adviser."
Elmer was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2001 and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Malt Advocate Magazine in 2002.