Elmer T. Lee was one of Buffalo Trace’s longest-serving Master Distillers, and he’s most known for establishing Blanton’s, the first commercially marketed single barrel bourbon. Lee was rewarded with this bottle, an eponymous single barrel of his own, in 1986, not long after his retirement. Elmer T Lee Bourbon has become even more difficult to find in recent years than Blanton’s, becoming yet another highly prized Buffalo Trace whiskey that is practically never available for anything near to its suggested retail price. There is no age information available, although it is to be the same higher rye #2 mash bill as Blanton’s, matured in Trace’s typical rickhouses.
There’s not much left of the bottle we’re tasting, and it is unlikely to find another, so let’s get this one reviewed, shall we?
A little bit of history…
Elmer joined the Distillery in 1949 as a maintenance engineer after serving as a Radar Bombardier in WWII and returning to the University of Kentucky to get an engineering degree. They handled much of the Distillery’s modernization and growth until his retirement in 1985, quickly advancing to Plant Engineer, then Plant Superintendent, and eventually the twin title of Plant Manager and Master Distiller.
They honored the guy who was first doubtful of him by introducing Blanton’s Single Barrel, the world’s first single-barrel bourbon, in 1984. Not long after that, Elmer now has his own single-barrel name.
Why the name?
This bourbon is named after Master Distiller Emeritus Elmer T. Lee and is carefully selected and bottled to Elmer T. Lee’s taste and standards. Perfectly balanced and rich, according to the man who understands what excellent bourbon should taste like. On the nose, there are hints of clove, vanilla, and worn leather. Fruit, honey, and vanilla flavors with a subtle spiciness. The aftertaste of this bourbon is lengthy and warm.
The Master Distiller
Elmer T. Lee is one of the most important names on the Buffalo Trace roster. And Buffalo Trace was on the verge of firing him! (See below.) It did, and bourbon, in general, is better off as a result because Lee — its first master distiller – essentially resurrected whiskey. To cut a long story short, Lee is now with the distillery at a time when bourbon was in decline (i.e., actually struggling against vodka and gin).
Rather than learning to love a Dirty Martini, Lee created a bourbon that radically emphasized the process and nuance behind quality bourbon, introducing thirsty Americans to the concept of premium bourbon in general, creating the first-ever single barrel bourbon, Blanton’s Single Barrel, and introducing thirsty Americans to the concept of premium bourbon in general. (And we still haven’t un-obsessed ourselves.)
What about it?
Elmer T Lee is a Buffalo Trace Single Barrel bourbon from the slightly higher-rye mash #2, which is also for Rock Hill Farms, Blanton’s, Hancock’s Reserve, and Ancient Age. Except for the Ancient Age, all of them are single barrels.
Mash #2 is owned by Ancient Age International (a Japanese firm), not Buffalo Trace if you didn’t already know. My hypothesis is that the Ancient Age has a lot of influence over the manufacturing of those bourbons, which could explain why, with the exception of the Ancient Age, all of them are quite difficult to find in the United States but less so in Japan, where Blanton’s is rather accessible.
How good is it?
The aroma is gentle and light, but it has considerable depth with flavors of butterscotch, buttered cinnamon toast, and caramel apple. There’s also a leathery, almost suede-like texture to this. On the tongue, this one is simple to drink, light and sweet and oily, but perhaps a little thin as it approaches the finish. Despite this, you can taste a lot of flavors into each sip: caramel corn, toasted coconut, toffee, and cinnamon candies with barely any heat. The finish is substantial, with a restrained warmth and a hint of orange peel that adds a lingering, juicy brightness to the climax.
Reincarnation of the Modern Bourbon
Lee was turned down for a job at Buffalo Trace the first time he applied. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed (someone advised Lee to just show up anyhow), and Lee eventually became the distillery’s first master distiller. He worked at the distillery from 1949 until his retirement in 1985, essentially preserving the bourbon business. And, yes, you can toast him with any of the excellent handmade bourbons he helped pioneer; there’s even an Elmer T. Lee bourbon.
Finish and Uniqueness
The finish is dry and a little astringent at times, and it fails to produce an initial good impression. It’s far too simple, with little flavor variation and an emphasis primarily on typical bourbon flavors of vanilla and wood. Only after a while does the finish gradually expand out and deliver a delicate red fruit aftertaste. While it may fall into the too-little-too-late category, it rescues the ending from falling flat and places it in the satisfactory category towards the conclusion.
When Elmer T. Lee was first released, there were fewer single-barrel bourbons on the market than there are now. Which helped it stand out from the crowd. Of course, things are different now, with practically every major brand offering a single barrel model.
Despite Elmer T. Lee’s single barrel designation, the bourbon has never been especially intriguing. However, once Buffalo Trace began to widely distribute it, it became a sought-after must-have bourbon with an almost mythological reputation. Adequate quality and a basic bourbon flavor profile maintained the bourbon well over the years, proving that not every bourbon needs to be spectacular to leave an impression. Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel Bourbon is exactly that. As lovely as it has always been, but yet as familiar as it has always been.
To wrap it up…
Overall, Elmer T Lee Single Barrel Bourbon packs a lot of taste into its 45 percent alcohol, but it lacks the added richness I enjoy from more mature and/or higher proof bourbons…or Blanton’s Red from 1993, which is simply flat out rich, mature, and amazing. Elmer T Lee is still a really good drink, but it doesn’t live up to the promise. It’s good, but it’s way overpriced…there are so many better options.
Elmer T. Lee, like Blanton’s, is a single barrel bourbon, so your mileage may vary if you manage to find one of these bottles. While it has the same approachability as the several Blanton’s single barrels I’ve tasted over the years, Elmer T. Lee has always appeared brighter and a little more sophisticated. Have fun searching!