Bourbon Industry

Bourbon industry patriarch Elmer T. Lee dies at age 93

Elmer T. Lee, master distiller emeritus at Buffalo Trace, shown here on May 14, was the innovator of premium bourbon.
Elmer T. Lee, master distiller emeritus at Buffalo Trace, shown here on May 14, was the innovator of premium bourbon. Mark Cornelison

Kentucky bourbon legend Elmer T. Lee, the man behind the single-barrel bourbon that sparked the industry's revival, died Tuesday at age 93.

Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort said that Mr. Lee, who held the title of master distiller emeritus, died after a short illness.

"We have lost a wonderful friend today, and he will be missed terribly," said Mark Brown, president and CEO of Sazerac, the Louisiana-based parent company of Buffalo Trace.

Mr. Lee's colleagues expressed condolences Tuesday.

Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell, a friend of Mr. Lee for more than 50 years, said that the bourbon Mr. Lee put his name on speaks to the kind of man he was: true and old-fashioned.

"We've lost a legend in the bourbon industry. He was always a gentleman," Russell said.

Chris Morris, master distiller at Woodford Reserve in Versailles, said, "Elmer T. Lee was the epitome of graciousness and professionalism in our industry. His colleagues at the Woodford Reserve and Brown-Forman Distilleries all raise a glass in his honor."

The bourbon industry "has lost an icon and a long-time shining star," said Jim Rutledge, Four Roses master distiller. "We will celebrate his life and tell 'Elmer' stories for years to come and share beautiful memories of a beautiful person."

Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers' Association, said the association and its members are "deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Elmer T. Lee, one of the finest statesmen and ambassadors of our signature industry and beloved commonwealth.

"Mr. Lee served with distinction and honor on the KDA board of directors from 1977 until his retirement. ... His wealth of distilling knowledge and outstanding devotion to strengthening our industry and craft will be missed by all," Gregory said.

Officially retired since 1985, Mr. Lee continued to visit the distillery every Tuesday to taste potential bourbons for his own Elmer T. Lee single-barrel label and to sign bottles and memorabilia for his legion of fans.

"In the world of making really fine whiskey, the role of master distiller is pivotal, but Elmer's meaning to those he met, came to know, and worked with closely extended far beyond that of a master distiller," Brown said. "Elmer defined, in the simplest terms, what it means to be a great American: hard-working, self-made, courageous, honest, kind, humble and humorous."

Born in 1919 on a tobacco farm near Peaks Mill in Franklin County, Mr. Lee graduated from Frankfort High School in 1936 and worked for Jarman Shoe Co. until December 1941. During World War II, he was a radar bombardier on a B-29 Superfortress, flying missions against Japan through 1945.

In 1946, he was honorably discharged and returned home to study engineering at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where he graduated with honors in 1949.

In September 1949, Mr. Lee began working in the engineering department of Frankfort's George T. Stagg Distillery (which became Buffalo Trace in 1999). By 1966, he became plant superintendent, and then plant manager in 1969.

But in 1984, he made his greatest contribution to bourbon: Mr. Lee introduced Blanton's, the world's first single-barrel bourbon.

It became a hit, first in Japan and then elsewhere, and the bourbon industry began reinventing itself with premium spirits.

Fred Noe, Jim Beam's master distiller, said Tuesday that he always looked up to Mr. Lee, Russell, and his father, Booker Noe, as the elder statesmen of the bourbon industry.

"They had the foresight to do premium," Noe said. "And they traveled and promoted and started getting out there and doing tastings — and put a face behind the bourbon. He'll always be remembered as the original single-barrel creator, and anybody that's got a single-barrel product on the market has him to thank for it."

After his retirement, Mr. Lee became an ambassador for Buffalo Trace. A year later, he was honored with his own eponymous single-barrel label.

"Elmer was always ready to offer advice and was a wealth of information that many of us relied on, myself included," Brown said. Current Buffalo Trace master distiller Harlen Wheatley "would inquire with Elmer when stuck on a mechanical problem, and any historical questions about the distillery always went to Elmer, who, with his razor-sharp memory, could invariably answer. To all of us, Elmer was a friend, a mentor and a trusted adviser."

Mr. Lee was inducted into the Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2001; he received a lifetime achievement award from Whisky Advocate in 2002 and a lifetime achievement award and Hall of Fame induction from Whisky Magazine in 2012.

Mr. Lee's wife, Libby, died in 2006. He is survived by his daughter, Peggy Comer, a grandson and a great-granddaughter.

Visitation for Mr. Lee will be 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. Friday at First Christian Church in Frankfort. Funeral services will be at noon Friday at the church. Harrod Brothers Funeral Home in Frankfort is handling arrangements.

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