By Kurt Maitland
As I sit here writing up this review of Elmer T. Lee, one of the excellent but lesser known bourbons from Buffalo Trace, I can’t help but think of a boxing term “punching above one’s weight” and I mean that in the best possible way.
Briefly, Buffalo Trace is the Kentucky distillery of bourbons such as Blanton’s, Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace and my beloved Pappy Van Winkle. Its first formal distillery was constructed by Harrison Blanton in 1812. It has gone through several iterations and name changes (such as O.F.C. Distillery, George T. Stagg Distillery, etc.) and has been owned by the Sazerac Company since 1992.
As for Elmer T. Lee, there is the bourbon and the man.
Elmer T. Lee the man was the plant manager for George T. Stagg Distillery (what we currently know as Buffalo Trace) from 1969 to 1985. It was he who introduced the single barrel bourbon concept with the release of Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon. Mr. Lee is still an ambassador for Buffalo Trace and has been the recipient of Malt Advocate magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award as well as inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame.
Now let’s get to his namesake bourbon.
Elmer T. Lee comes in a bottle that looks like it came out of an episode of “Deadwood” or the movie “Tombstone”. It is square with rounded corners and slightly indented sides. The whiskey is bottled at 45% alcohol (90 proof).
This stuff has the classic, copper-colored bourbon look, with an aroma of brown sugar, dried fruits, apricot and molasses. In your mouth it is dry and crisp with hints of spiciness, coming off almost more like a wine than bourbon with a distinct light licorice and cinnamon taste. This dryness is particularly evident in the finish, which is reminiscent of the finish of Blanton’s (Elmer T. Lee’s bigger and pricier brother).
In my opinion, and this is where the boxing terminology comes in – Elmer T. Lee is as good as better known (and sometimes more expensive) small batch, premium bourbons. Its taste is more distinctive, it has a great pedigree (being a single barrel, like its label-mate Blanton’s), and even though there are bigger and more famous boys on the block, Elmer has the skills and talent to take them in a one-on-one match-up. Try it and see.
Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey retails for between $25 and $31 in most stores (a very reasonable price for a single barrel), but is a little harder to find than other Buffalo Trace products, so you need to be diligent.