Unfortunately, today the bourbon industry lost Elmer Tandy Lee, master distiller emeritus at Buffalo Trace distillery. As you might guess, I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Lee, but his reputation has left an important legacy on the bourbon industry and the bourbon market.
In the early 1980’s, Mr. Lee made a massive move in bourbon when he decided to start bottling single barrels of bourbon based on a specific taste profile. He named this bourbon Blanton’s, after Colonel Albert Blanton, Lee’s predecessor. From what I have been able to find in researching the topic, a few distilleries had experimented with limited edition bottlings, but Blanton’s was the first regularly released single barrel bourbon. In bottling bourbon from a single barrel, none of the flavor of the barrel was lost in batching the bourbon. The popularity of single barrel bourbons quickly caught on for consumers that wanted a premium bourbon product with all the excitement and variance that comes with single barrel products. The sheer number of single barrel bourbons on the shelves of liquor stores nowadays is a tribute to Mr. Lee’s genius (not to mention the fact that one of those single barrel bourbons is named Elmer T. Lee).
Most importantly, Mr. Lee came to bourbon later in his life (in his thirties) when he procured a job as a maintenance engineer at the George T. Stagg (later Buffalo Trace) distillery in 1949. From that point on, he rose in the company until he was declared the Plant Manager and Master Distiller, a position he held until 1985. Elmer T. Lee’s life is one that triumphed dedication and learning. He worked hard, and learned everything about bourbon the old-fashioned way. He was at the distillery everyday to learn and make the most of every conversation. Harlen Wheatley (current Master Distiller at Buffalo Trace) said he still sought out Mr. Lee’s advice even though Mr. Lee was well into his 90’s.
Elmer T. Lee was somebody who learned about bourbon through intelligence and osmosis. The best way to learn is to do with the right attitude, and that is Elmer T. Lee’s legacy. He was always a proponent of drinking responsibly. He understood that bourbon did not slumber in the barrel to be dumped in a cocktail and downed for its effects. So, in that tradition, take some time today to have a meaningful conversation while enjoying a small glass of your favorite bourbon (and don’t forget the toast to Elmer Tandy Lee).