By Justin Thompson
The life-story of Elmer T. Lee is a perfect example of what Americans commonly reference when they discuss the “Greatest Generation”. Elmer was a farm boy, born on a tobacco farm in Kentucky, where he graduated from the local high school. After graduation, he eventually enlisted in the Air Force and became a crew member on a B-29 bomber used in the Pacific Campaign during World War II until he was honorably discharged in January 1946.
After his service, Elmer studied engineering at the University of Kentucky where he graduated with honors in 1949 and went on to except a position at the George T. Stagg Distillery in Frankfort (now known as Buffalo Trace). He was eventually promoted to plant manager in 1969, a title he held until his retirement in 1985 despite three different ownership changes at the distillery.
His last year as the plant manager (referred to now as Master Distiller) in 1984 might have been his most significant when he was instrumental in launching the brand, Blanton’s Bourbon, which became the first single barrel Bourbon to be successfully marketed to the public. The success of Blanton’s opened the door for other Bourbon companies to introduce higher quality products at a greater price point, which inaugurated a brand new category for the entire Bourbon industry known as “super-premium”.
The super-premium category of Bourbon has been crucial in Bourbon’s sharp rise in popularity over the last 15 years, so much so that some experts even believe it is the most important factor during this time period where the spirit has seen significant growth in case volume and pop-culture acceptance.
While Elmer officially retired in 1985, he was named Master Distiller Emeritus the following year and would continue to come into the distillery every Tuesday, where he served on the tasting panel, a quality assurance team for the whiskies made at Buffalo Trace. In 1986, he was honored with his own namesake single barrel Bourbon label, Elmer T. Lee.
Elmer’s vision and ambassadorship will be irreplaceable, but his legacy of jump starting the super-premium category of Bourbon will live on forever in the Bourbon world.