Elmer T. Lee
First to Introduce Single Barrel
Elmer Tandy Lee was born in August 1919 in Franklin County, Kentucky in a small town named Peaks Mill. His father died when he was an infant, and he was raised by his mother in Frankfort and graduated from Frankfort High School. He entered the University of Kentucky but withdrew in December 1941 to volunteer for the U. S. Army in World War II. He served as a radar bombardier in B-29 bombers based in Guam.
Elmer returned to the U. K. after the war to get his bachelor’s degree in engineering. One day in 1949 he showed up, just down the street from his house, at the George T. Stagg Distillery (now called the Buffalo Trace Distillery) and asked for a job. The Master Distiller and President of the distillery, Colonel Albert Blanton told him that day, “Son, we’re not hiring any hands today.” On his way out of the distillery Lee ran into future Bourbon Hall of Famer Orville Schupp who implored his to come back the following week and they would find something for him. The following Monday he was hired on at the plant in maintenance. Later Elmer was promoted to be be an engineer working on and repairing machinery. Then just ten years into his tenure he was promoted again to be the Plant Superintendent in 1966. In 1969 Lee was named the Distillery Manager and then earned the esteemed title of Master Distiller in 1981.
Lee’s introduction of the premium brand of bourbon called Blanton’s in 1984 was widely credited with raising bourbon’s reputation within the spirits industry and helped to reverse a long slump in Kentucky’s signature industry. For Blanton’s Single Barrel, Mr. Lee and his staff selected the best-aged bourbon whiskey from the sweet spot of the warehouse and bottled it straight from the barrels, unblended, in decanters featuring horse-and-jockey bottle stoppers in a salute to Kentucky’s thoroughbred industry. It sold for about $35 a bottle, compared with an average price of $7 to $12 for a most other bourbons.
In addition to all the titles Elmer held, he oversaw much of the Distillery’s modernization and growth up until his retirement from Buffalo Trace in 1985. Several years after his retirement Buffalo Trace honored him by naming another Single Barrel Bourbon, “Elmer T. Lee.” Despite being retired he never really left the distillery and the company named him Master Distiller Emeritus. After that he made the rounds around the distillery every Tuesday in his trademark golf cap, signing memorabilia along the bottling line for employees and in the gift shop for tourists. He especially loved his visits with his friends in Blanton's Bottling Hall and tasting bourbons in the Buffalo Trace lab.
Elmer T. Lee received the ultimate honor by being only the third individual ever inducted into the inaugural class of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2001. Elmer passed away in Frankfort in July 2013 at the age of 93 and as the ultimate nod to Lee’s contributions to the Bourbon industry Buffalo Trace came out with a Commemorative Edition to his life.