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Tom Eblen: Bourbon's elder statesmen are real-life characters

FRANKFORT—These guys don't look like rock stars at first glance.

Or second glance. Or third.

Yet, they travel the world making public appearances, posing for photographs and signing autographs, usually on bottles of Kentucky's best bourbon, some of which have their picture on the label.

This is officially Bourbon Heritage Month in Kentucky. The 18th annual Bourbon Festival is Sept. 15-20 in Bardstown. The eight-distillery Kentucky Bourbon Trail is expecting a record number of tourists.

So I figured this was a good time to sit down with three of bourbon's elder statesmen: Elmer T. Lee, 90, former plant manager at Buffalo Trace; and master distillers Jimmy Russell, 74, who has been at Wild Turkey in Lawrenceburg for 55 years, and Parker Beam, 67, who is celebrating 50 years at Heaven Hill in Bardstown.

Bourbon sales have been growing steadily for 25 years, especially in international markets such as Japan, Australia and Europe. Distillery production is up 50 percent since 1999.

Much of the credit is given to Lee, who introduced Blanton's Single Barrel in 1984, launching the premium bourbon market that has been the industry's growth engine. Single barrel and small batch recipes have transformed bourbon's image from a commodity into a craft product, like fine wine.

You also can't discount the marketing genius of Bill Samuels at Maker's Mark in Loretto, who taught a conservative industry how to be folksy and hip at the same time.

More than 95 percent of all bourbon is made in Kentucky, creating a $3 billion industry with 3,200 direct jobs. Although some distilleries are now owned by international conglomerates, almost all are run and staffed by Kentuckians with old bourbon family trees.

Russell and Beam are third-generation distillers; their sons are distillers, too. Beam's grandfather, for whom he was named, was master distiller at the operation owned by his grandfather's brother, Jim Beam.

I visited with Russell, Beam and Lee around a table at Stony Point, the hilltop home where Col. Albert Blanton once commanded the 110-acre distillery now called Buffalo Trace. These three friends and rivals have known each other for decades. They can, and often do, give one another a hard time — and finish one another's sentences.

The first thing I wanted to know was how these experts drink their bourbon.

Russell sips his "neat"— or straight — from a brandy snifter so he can enjoy the aroma. In summertime, he might drink it over ice or chill the bottle in the refrigerator. Beam also is a straight-bourbon man, although he sometimes chases it with a little water. Lee prefers his bourbon mixed with 7Up or Sprite.

Russell, whose personal brand is Russell's Reserve, and Beam, who developed Evan Williams Single Barrel, have a drink most days, but not every day. Lee is a daily drinker but, like the others, in moderation.

"I don't try to drink it all every night," Lee said. "Just one good highball."

Does Lee, the namesake of Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel, give bourbon any credit for his living to be 90? "I give it a whole lot of credit," he said. "It ain't hurt a damn thing."

Beam jumped in: "Booker Noe, my cousin (and former master distiller at Jim Beam in Clermont) always said, there's too much living proof bourbon won't hurt you. Look at all us old-timers."

Decades of practice have taught these men what good bourbon tastes like, but they have a hard time describing it — and sometimes chuckle when others try. They talked of hearing bourbon aficionados wax poetically about hints of caramel, vanilla and spice — and even tree leaves, leather and tobacco.

"I've always said when you've got some of those kind of tastes in your bourbon, you've probably got problems," Beam said with a laugh.

Lee then had to tell one on Russell. One time, at a tasting in Missouri, someone began equating a particular bourbon's taste to exotic fruits and vegetables. Russell leaned over to another distiller and whispered: "I don't know about y'all, but we don't put any of that crap in our bourbon."

These three seem to enjoy being international bourbon ambassadors almost as much as being distillers. They have a lot of funny stories, such as the time Lee called down to the front desk of a hotel in Japan to ask for a bucket of ice. The bellman delivered a bucket of rice.

Lee, Beam and Russell were born and raised within a few miles of the distilleries where they have spent their lives, and their most common travel stories involve how people sometimes react to their folksy charm.

"One time, at a tasting in California, I introduced myself, and after I poured the product, this guy kept kind of staring at me," Beam said. "Then he pointed his finger and said, 'You're a real person! ... I thought you were just some fictitious character they had come up with in marketing."

Beam, Russell and Lee are real, all right. But they're characters, too.

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