The Volstead Act which provided the details on how Prohibition would be implemented was passed on July 22, 1919. Just a few months later on August 5, 1919 the world quietly celebrated the birth of Elmer T. Lee on a tobacco farm near Peaks Mill just outside of Frankfort, Kentucky. Elmer T. Lee is the man who would one day become the first Master Distiller at George T. Stagg Distillery in Frankfort and the first one to commercially introduce the world to premium single barrel bourbon. Today, that distillery is best known as the Buffalo Trace Distillery.
As a young man, Elmer T. Lee served as a radar bombardier on B-29 flights during World War II with the U.S. Army Air Force. After flying missions against Japan through 1945, Elmer was honorably discharged in 1946, attended college at the University of Kentucky where he graduated with honors in 1949 with a degree in engineering. That’s the year his lifelong career in distilled spirits began.
“I worked here during spring breaks and summer break (during college) and I liked the plant and I liked the people and I thought this is what I’d like to do,” said Elmer T. Lee during a 2008 interview with the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History.
‘Son, We’re Not Hiring Any Hands Today’
“When I was brought in for an interview, Orville Schupp brought me in for an interview for a job here when I graduated. He took me in to see Colonel Albert Blanton. The Col. was in the corner office, the corner room of that office. When we walked in he had these arm bands like you see gamblers where on each arm and a green eye shade on and he looked up at me. Orville said, ‘Col. this is the young man I’ve been telling you about, I want him to come to work down here, I wanted you to meet him.’ The Col. looked up out of his eye shade and he said, ‘Son, we are not hiring any hands today,’ and I thought that was the end of the interview. We got outside Orville said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of it, you come to work Monday morning.’ And I did. Every time I’d pass the Col. on the lot he’d look at me kind of cross. I could see what he was thinking, ‘How in the hell did you get in here (laughs).’ He was a nice guy and everybody thought highly of Albert.”
Elmer T. Lee started work at the George T. Stagg Distillery in the fall of 1949 as a maintenance engineer. Two or three years later he became plant engineer which covered all of the construction work, modernization and updating equipment. He was promoted to plant superintendent in 1966 and in 1969 held dual titles as plant manager and as the distillery’s first Master Distiller. In 1984 Lee created Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon, the world’s first single barrel bourbon. He continued to hold both titles until his retirement in 1985.
And the rest as they say is history, bourbon history.
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Buffalo Trace Celebrates a Century of Master Distiller Elmer T. Lee
Buffalo Trace first honored Elmer T. Lee a year after his retirement with the introduction of Elmer T. Lee single barrel bourbon in 1986. In honor of what would have been Lee’s 100th birthday, Buffalo Trace Distillery has announced the release of a 100 proof commemorative bottling of Elmer T. Lee 100 Year Tribute Single Barrel Bourbon. Proceeds from the bottle sales will go towards Frankfort VFW Post 4075, where Elmer was a member until his death.
This is a limited edition, one time only release with the same age and mashbill as the standard Elmer T. Lee, but this whiskey is bottled at 100 proof. The company says this bourbon has the classic taste that Elmer would have loved, with a nose of maple syrup up front, a taste of creamy vanilla with berries, and a long finish of coffee, toasted oak, and vanilla.
“After a century has passed since he was born, we want to honor Elmer and share our admiration with his family and others, while also giving back to Elmer’s local VFW,” said Kris Comstock, senior marketing director. “We were lucky to have Elmer with us for 93 years. As he grew older he continued to visit the Distillery weekly. The wisdom, expertise and friendship he shared during his weekly visits will never be forgotten. We think of him often and cherish the time he spent with us.”
“What Elmer did for American whiskey is hard to grasp in today’s terms, but in 1984, bourbon was in the doldrums and sales were low,” stated Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace’s current master distiller. “Elmer took a big risk creating a single barrel bourbon, but he hoped it would generate new interest in bourbon and revive the industry. At first Blanton’s wasn’t popular, and Elmer feared it may not take off. But today, I think it’s safe to say Elmer made a wise move.”
Elmer T. Lee Inaugural Member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame
Elmer retired in 1985 but continued to serve as an ambassador for Buffalo Trace Distillery and the whiskey world up until his death in 2013. Lee was one of six bourbon legends that was part of the inaugural Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame members. The 2001 Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame list includes; Parker Beam of Heaven Hill Distillery, Lincoln Wesley Henderson of Woodford Reserve Distillery and later Angel’s Envy, Fred McMillen, Booker Noe of Jim Beam Distillery, Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey Distillery, Jim Rutledge of Four Roses Distillery and the future J.W. Rutledge Distillery, Bill Samuels, Jr. of Maker’s Mark Distillery and of course Elmer T. Lee of Buffalo Trace Distillery.
The Elmer T. Lee 100 Year Tribute Single Barrel Bourbon will be very limited in distribution and available starting later this month with a suggested retail price is $100.
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Elmer T. Lee Video Interview Highlights
You can view the entire one hour plus video here.