By Richard Thomas
Elmer T. Lee, the legendary master distiller who created the modern single barrel bourbon, died today following a brief illness. Lee was 93 years old.
Born in 1919 on a tobacco farm near Peaks Mill in Franklin County, KY, Lee graduated from Frankfort County High School in 1936 and worked for Jarman Shoe Company until December 1941. He then served with the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II as a radar bombardier on a B-29. After flying missions against Japan through 1945, Elmer was honorably discharged in January 1946. He returned home and studied engineering at the University of Kentucky, where he graduated with honors in 1949.
In September 1949, Lee began working in the engineering department of the George T. Stagg Distillery in Frankfort. In 1966, he was promoted to plant superintendent, responsible for all plant operations and reporting to the plant manager. 1n 1969, he rose to become the plant manager.
But it was in 1984 that Lee made the contribution to the bourbon industry gained him the most notoriety, when he introduced Blanton’s, the world’s first Single Barrel Bourbon. He formally retired the next year in 1985, but in reality this was only semi-retirement. Lee made frequent appearances at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, and was always ready with advice for current Master Distiller Harlan Wheatley and Buffalo Trace President Mark Brown.
Lee was known through the bourbon industry for his expertise and knowledge about bourbon whiskey and he received numerous awards and recognition, including induction into the Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2001, the Lifetime Achievement Award from Whisky Advocate in 2002, and the Lifetime Achievement Award and Hall of Fame induction from Whisky Magazine in 2012.
Elmer T. Lee was truly a living legend in the bourbon industry, and The Whiskey Reviewer‘s hearts go out to our friends at Buffalo Trace.