April 21, 2009

Elmer T. Lee and the Creation of the First Single Barrel Bourbon

Elmer T. Lee, Master Distiller Emeritus at Buffalo Trace, created the first single barrel bourbon. By doing so, he arguably precipitated the American movement towards premium bourbons in the 1980's.

Born in 1919, Mr. Lee grew up in Frankfurt, KY. After serving with the military, he earned his degree in engineering from the University of Kentucky and in 1949 got a job as a plant engineer in what it presently Buffalo Trace Distillery. For 15 years, Lee worked as an engineer and was lucky enough to serve under Col. Albert Blanton from whom he learned much of his bourbon-making knowledge. In 1978, Lee was promoted to plant manager and master distiller. Years later, in 1986, he retired.

In 1984, however, Lee released Blanton's Single Barrel bourbon to compete with the international movement towards higher-end whiskies (this was around the time single malt scotch was creating a name for itself). Lee decided America deserved a part of the premium whiskey pie, and his decision to market and sell single barrel bourbon did just that.

Despite being "retired," Lee still goes to the Trace every week, on Monday's I hear, to select the barrels to be used in the distillery's different products. For Blanton's, Lee prefers to select barrels from the middle floors of warehouses C, I, or K. According to Lee, these locations contain the most balanced and flavorful bourbons.

Lee is certainly among the most influencial characters in bourbon production, both from a modern and historic viewpoint. A great video featuring Lee is available from Buffalo Trace's website. You should definitely watch it.

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