Elmer T. Lee, Whose Premium Bourbon Revived an Industry, Dies at 93
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: July 21, 2013
Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader
His death was announced by Buffalo Trace Distillery, where he had held the title of master distiller emeritus since his retirement in 1985.
Mr. Lee spent his entire working life at the plant, beginning in 1949 as a newly graduated engineering student from the University of Kentucky.
Others before him had introduced premium bourbons for the refined palate but had ended up withdrawing them for lack of interest. But in 1984, when he produced the first batch of Blanton’s Single Barrel, Mr. Lee had nothing to lose. The bourbon industry was in a tailspin.
“It was going downhill — way downhill,” he said in a 2008 interview for a University of Kentucky oral history project. “Bourbon was not what you’d call one of the favored drinks.” (Mr. Lee’s favorite drink was bourbon and 7Up, on the rocks.)
Demand for bourbon had been declining since the early ’70s, in part because of the rising popularity of gin and vodka. And the slump was being felt at Buffalo Trace, where the work force was shrinking; it employed 250 people when Mr. Lee started in 1949 and would reach a low of 50 in the early 1990s.
For Blanton’s Single Barrell, Mr. Lee and his staff selected the best-aged bourbon whiskey in the warehouse and bottled it straight from the barrels, unblended, in decanters featuring horse-and-jockey bottle stoppers (a nod to another Kentucky industry). It sold for about $30 a bottle, compared with an average price of $10 to $15 for a most other bourbons.
The brand slowly built a devoted customer base. “We had to have cases and cases of it every Friday, or else,” said Eric Gregory, who as a University of Kentucky student worked part time in a liquor store in the mid-1980s and is now president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association.
Many Kentucky distilleries have since added premium bourbons to their product lines.
“A well-made, well-aged bourbon offers a gorgeous spectrum of flavors,” the wine and spirits critic Eric Asimov wrote in The New York Times in 2007, “beginning with a distinctive sweetness that can, depending on the distiller’s aim, turn spicy and peppery with clear fruitiness.” Mr. Asimov judged Blanton’s Single Barrel “mellow and earthy, with flavors of mint, citrus, flowers and honey.”
Mr. Gregory, of the Kentucky distillers group, credited the premium market that Mr. Lee pioneered as a major factor in the bourbon industry’s turnaround in the last decade; sales reached 30 million gallons in 2012 for the first time since 1973, he said.
“He was first,” Mr. Gregory said. “He transformed our industry.”
Elmer Tandy Lee was born on Aug. 5, 1919, in Peaks Mill, Ky. His father died when he was an infant, and he was raised by his mother in Frankfort. He entered the University of Kentucky but withdrew to volunteer for the Army in World War II. He served as a radar bombardier in B-29 bombers based in Guam.
Mr. Lee returned to the university after the war to get his degree and began working at the distillery as a maintenance engineer when, under a different owner, it was called the George T. Stagg Distillery. He was promoted to plant superintendent in 1966 and to plant manager in 1969 and given the title master distiller in the early 1980s.
Mr. Lee’s wife, Libby, died in 2006. He is survived by his daughter, Peggy Comer; a grandson; and a great-granddaughter.
After his retirement, Buffalo Trace honored Mr. Lee with a single-barrel brand of his own, the Elmer T. Lee Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, bottled from barrels he continued selecting himself into his 90s. The label won gold medals this year at both the Los Angeles International Wine and Spirits Competition and the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. The journal Whiskey Advocate described its flavor as “elegant and complex.”