Longtime Kentucky bourbon maker Elmer T. Lee, who introduced a single-barrel bourbon brand that helped spark the industry's comeback, has died. He was 93.
Lee, who held the title of master distiller emeritus at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, died Tuesday in Frankfort, Ky., after a short illness, the company announced.
His most notable contribution to the bourbon industry came in 1984, when he introduced Blanton's, a single-barrel bourbon brand. 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 he considered Lee — along with Jimmy Russell, Wild Turkey's master distiller, and his father, Booker Noe — among 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."
Officially retired since 1985, 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 fans.
Current Buffalo Trace master distiller Harlen Wheatley said he "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 advisor."
Born Aug. 5, 1919, on a tobacco farm near Peaks Mill in Franklin County, Ky., Lee worked for a shoe company 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.
Lee began working in the engineering department of the George T. Stagg Distillery later that year. He was promoted to plant superintendent in 1966 and became plant manager three years later. The Stagg facility eventually became the Buffalo Trace Distillery.
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.
Lee's wife of 56 years, Libby, died in 2006. He is survived by a daughter, a grandson and a great-granddaughter.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun