ELMER T. LEE

As I walked into my favorite hole-in-the-wall liquor store, I wandered over to browse the selection. No sooner had I started my search, when my friend behind the counter exclaimed:  “We’ve got some good stuff over here! Weller. Stagg. Elmer T. Lee.”  

Is it written across my forehead that I’m always on the search for interesting finds?

The Man. The Story. The Bourbon.

Elmer T. Lee served as the Master Distiller at Buffalo Trace. He began his career as a maintenance engineer in 1949, following his service as a bombardier in World War II. He quickly rose to plant engineer, plant superintendent, and master distiller. In 2013, Elmer passed away at the age of 93. During his tenure, he saw the post-World-War bourbon boom to its quiet demise to beers, wines, and lighter spirits over the years.

His greatest contribution to the industry was the mass production of single-barrel bourbons. Up until the introduction of Blanton’s in 1984, bourbons were batched or blended – but never single-barreled. It was just too risky. Blending of whiskies on a grand scale or in small batches allowed greater consistency across the brand. Mass production of single-barreled products was risky, though if done correctly, could highlight the artisan skill of a master distiller. Blanton’s breathed life back into the sagging industry and highlighted the reintroduction of premium branding.

Not long thereafter, Elmer was honored with his own single-barrel carrying his name. Buffalo Trace carries 3 primary bourbon mashbills: Mashbill #1 (< 10% rye), Mashbill #2 ( 12 – 15% rye), and their Wheated Mashbill (used by the Weller and Van Winkle brands). Elmer T. Lee bourbon utilizes Mashbill #2, which is also shared by bottom-shelfer Ancient Age (really? who would have thought?), Blantons, Rock Hill Farm, and Hancock Reserve.  

The Tasting 

Elmer T. Lee is bottled at 90 proof, while siblings Blantons and Rock Hill Farms are bottled at 93 proof and 100 proof respectively. Unlike Blanton’s, there’s no barrel numbering displayed on the bottle. In addition, the bottle does not carry an age statement (though just 5 years ago, it was carrying a 12-year age statement – my, how times have changed!).

Eye: Toffee-caramel

Nose: Rich, yet light and fragrant, vanilla and maple brown sugar notes. This has a wonderful, but not overpowering nose.

Palate: Vanilla and more brown sugar, and even a trace of citrusy-peach. The mouthfeel is light, but it is very well balanced with no harsh notes.   

Finish: Medium with light waves of nutmeg and vanilla. Carrying a higher-rye mashbill, I’m surprised (though not disappointed) that there wasn’t more spice. The lighter notes were well played in this particular barrel.   

Overall: This is fine bourbon. A number of other single barrels (including Blanton’s and Rock Hill Farms) are bottled at a higher proof. This particular barrel didn’t disappoint. It was light enough for newer bourbon fans, but with enough interesting notes and character to enliven a more experienced purveyor of America’s native spirit.

I raise my glass to the man – the legend – Elmer T. Lee. I wish I could find this elusive unicorn a little more often as it is a great, easy sipper. Enjoy this one with friends!  

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