Launched to markets in the late 1980s, Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel Bourbon is the namesake bourbon of the late and great Elmer T. Lee, who once served as master distiller at the Buffalo Trace Distillery. Prior to entering into the world of distilling, Lee served as a radar bombardier in World War II, flying missions for the U.S. Army Air Force until 1945. After the war, he completed his education and was brought on at the distillery as an engineer.
Working at Buffalo Trace during a period in which whiskey production was on a steep decline, Lee is widely credited with maintaining the distillery’s operations and reinvigorating the nation’s interest in the spirit through his experimental creations. One of these groundbreaking contributions was the development of the first-ever single-barrel bourbon. Following his retirement in 1985, Lee was bestowed with the honor of receiving his own namesake single-barrel bourbon. Now that you know the basics, here are seven more things you should know about the whiskey label and the iconic master distiller it’s named after.
The bourbon’s name pays homage to Buffalo Trace’s late master distiller.
Elmer T. Lee Small Batch was created to celebrate the achievements of Lee, who was employed at the Buffalo Trace Distillery for 36 years. During his time at the distillery, the Air Force veteran worked his way up to become a plant engineer and the plant superintendent before he was named plant manager and master distiller. A few years after his retirement in 1985, Elmer T. Lee’s achievements were recognized by his former colleagues with the creation of his own namesake bourbon, Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel. He was bestowed with the honor of becoming just one of three individuals inducted to the very first Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2001. Lee was also kept on as a distillery consultant until his passing in 2013.
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Elmer T. Lee is a sour mash bourbon.
Each batch of Elmer T. Lee is made using the sour mash technique, meaning a leftover portion of still-fermenting mash from previous distillations is saved and added to future mash bills. This method of producing bourbon is not uncommon, as it helps to regulate the pH of the ingredients used to distill, which, prior to current sanitation standards, helped to ensure that each batch of whiskey tasted the same. Other common expressions of sour mash bourbons include Old Crow — the sour mash technique was actually invented by founder Dr. James Crow — Michter’s, and some E.H. Taylor expressions.
When Elmer T. Lee applied for a job at the distillery, he was initially turned down.
Having just received his degree in engineering from the University of Kentucky, Lee ventured to the Buffalo Trace Distillery — called the George T. Stagg Distillery at the time — to apply for a job. There, he was greeted by legendary distillery president Colonel Albert B. Blanton. “Son, we’re not hiring any hands today,” Blanton informed Lee. Had it not been for a rumored chance encounter on Lee’s way out with Orville Schupp, Blanton’s protégé, it’s possible that the world would have never been introduced to his future creations. But Schupp, rather than abiding by the provision laid out by his superior, directed Lee to come to work anyway and not long after, he started his first job at the distillery as a maintenance engineer.
Elmer is responsible for the creation of the world’s first single-barrel bourbon.
During his time as master distiller, Elmer T. Lee is credited with transforming the bourbon industry and largely revitalizing a lost interest in the spirit. This was largely thanks to his most famous achievement: distilling the world’s first single-barrel bourbon, Blanton’s Single Barrel, which was named for the man who initially turned Lee away. The bourbon used for Blanton’s Single Barrel was hand-selected by Lee from the rickhouse’s sweet spot. It was then bottled directly from the barrel into decanters plugged with bottle stoppers in the shape of a horse and jockey in reference to Kentucky’s racing industry. Though Lee is no longer with us to hand-select each barrel, Blanton’s remains a top-seller among beloved allocated bourbons.
Elmer T. Lee is produced using the Buffalo Trace’s secret mash bill #2.
Produced at Buffalo Trace’s Frankfort distillery, Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel Bourbon is made with the distillery’s top-secret mash bill #2, known as the high-rye mash bill. Though the exact makeup of the mash bill remains undisclosed, it is widely known to consist of 12 to 15 percent rye, compared to mash bill #1 which has 10 percent rye or less. Blanton’s Single Barrel is also produced using mash bill #2.
You’ll need some good luck — and a few hundred dollars — to get your hands on some Small Batch.
Similar to many of Buffalo Trace’s whiskies, Elmer T. Lee Small Batch is an allocated bourbon, meaning finding a bottle at market price may be a bit of a struggle. As only a set amount of product is provided to retailers, it’s more likely than not that every bottle of Elmer T. Lee you encounter will be sold on the secondary market, where prices are almost 10 times more expensive than the bourbon’s suggested retail value of $40. For example, despite the MSRP, Wine-Searcher lists the average price for a single bottle of Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel at $372.
Following Lee’s passing, Buffalo Trace released two bourbons in remembrance of the distiller.
Shortly after Lee passed away in 2013, Buffalo Trace released a limited-edition Commemorative Bottle of Lee’s namesake bourbon. Bottled at 93 proof in honor of the distiller’s age at his time of passing, the limited-edition whiskey currently sells for a staggering $2,442, according to Wine-Searcher. In 2019 — 100 years after Elmer T. Lee’s birth in August 1919 — Buffalo Trace released another limited offering to honor his memory: the 100 Year Tribute bourbon. Made using the same rare mash bill as Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel, 100 Year Tribute is bottled 100 proof, higher than the label’s standard 90-proof expression. First distributed via lottery and priced at $99, the secondary market for this expression is similarly out of control, with Wine-Searcher listing the average price at a whopping $1,320.