A trace of greatness

A trace of greatness

Stuart Maclean Ramsay roams among the magnificent buffalo of Kentucky.

History | 16 Sep 2000 | Issue 11 | By Stuart Ramsay

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One fine gentleman,’’ is how Jimmy Russell, Master Distiller at Wild Turkey describes his friend and fellow bourbon alchemist, Elmer T Lee.“And he makes a good whiskey, too,” Jimmy adds. I met with Elmer, Master Distiller Emeritus of the Buffalo Trace Distillery by Frankfort, Kentucky, earlier this year. The meeting took place at Stony Point, the elegant limestone mansion that overlooks the whiskey landscape of Buffalo Trace. We were joined by an ebullient Mark Brown, President and Chief Executive Officer of the distillery, who answered my first question, the origin of the word, ‘trace’.“The distillery site is located on an ancient buffalo crossing, where the animals forded the Kentucky River,” Mark explained. “It was part of the Great Buffalo Trace, a pathway or trail carved out by the buffalo as they thundered from salt lick to salt lick through a landscape enveloped with river cane and forests of white oak, ash and cherry trees. These traces in turn became pathways for the destiny of our ancestors – the explorers, and settlers who moved into the western wilderness.” The Great Buffalo Trace led to the first survey of this area north of the Kentucky River, carried out by the McAfee brothers in 1773. The present distillery site became a settlement two years later when Hancock and Willis Lee established their camp with a small company of ‘comrades’. Although harassed by local Indian bands who did not take kindly to white men interfering with their ancestral hunting grounds – Willis Lee was killed by the Indians in 1776 – the Leestown settlement became a stopping place for travellers and was home to a thriving population by 1790. The abundance of limestone spring water and rich, bottom loam soil made the area perfect for growing corn, and its location at the highest navigable point on the Kentucky River provided a convenient river trail for transporting goods, including whiskey. By 1790, Leestown had become a major warehousing district, with thousands of casks of locally made whiskey loaded on to great flatboats for their journey down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to the city of New Orleans. The first modern distillery was built on the Buffalo Trace site in 1857, according to Mark, and was the earliest to incorporate steam power in the production of bourbon. E H Taylor Jr, one of Kentucky’s original bourbon aristocrats, later bought the distillery and introduced a number of innovations, including America’s first climate -controlled warehousing techniques (using steam pipes to heat the warehouse in winter) in 1886. We stood outside the entrance to the Stony Point mansion, which now serves as hilltop office space for the company’s sales and marketing team, and took in the park like distillery vista laid out below us. The site encompasses 110 acres and there’s 110 buildings on the grounds. “They represent three centuries of history, and you’re standing on one of America’s oldest distillery sites, with whiskey production going back 200 years,” adds Mark. On the way down the hill to the distillery courtyard, we pass by a grey, stone-carved statue of a dapper Kentucky gentleman. “That’s Colonel Albert Bacon Blanton,” says Elmer, “and that’s where I come in. Colonel Blanton was the distillery manager in 1949 when I began work here. He started in 1897 as an office clerk”, Elmer explains, “and eventually became part-owner of the distillery with George T Stagg. He was here during Prohibition when the distillery was one of only four stills in America allowed to produce whiskey for medicinal prescriptions.” (Elmer later showed me a bottle of Carlisle Whiskey made at the distillery for such purposes; it was distilled in 1916 and bottled in 1930 — good medicine indeed!). “After Prohibition,” he continues, “Colonel Blanton took over operation of the distillery and introduced a strict quality control program. He also built the Stony Point mansion in 1934 to live in, and laid out the 15 acres of surrounding gardens. I was offered the mansion to live in when I became manager, but I said no — I prefer fishing and golfing to gardening, and there’s lots of gardening.” Close by the Albert Blanton statue is the Elmer T. Lee Clubhouse, built by Blanton in 1937 from the logs of century-old Kentucky cabins. It is used today as a hospitality centre and cafeteria for the 10,000 visitors who make the annual pilgrimage to Buffalo Trace. Thirty yards further on, engulfed by the pipes and machinery of the modern distillery, is the home of an early pioneer settler, Commander Richard Taylor. Built in 1782, the white-washed limestone and wood house, now somewhat dishevelled in appearance, is one of the oldest buildings in Franklin County, Kentucky. Throughout the grounds of Buffalo Trace, the 100 or so buildings bear testimony to both the human and spirituous history of the state of Kentucky. Perhaps closest to the drinkers’ heart are the whiskey warehouses that are scattered across the landscape and span the architectural styles of the 19th and 20th centuries. Elmer T Lee (the ‘T’ is for Tandy, a Welsh name on his grandfather’s side) himself is responsible for a good portion of the bourbon that has aged and ages inside these handsome brick buildings. A native of Franklin County, Elmer went to work at the distillery in 1949 after obtaining a degree in engineering from the University of Kentucky. Prior to this, during World War II, he served as a radar bombardier on a B-29 Bomber Crew in the United States Air Force. The distillery at that time, with Albert Blanton at the helm, was called the George T. Stagg Distillery and was owned by the Schenley Distillers Company out of New York. Elmer began in the engineering department and was promoted to plant superintendent in 1966, becoming plant manager and Master Distiller two years later. “We’ve been using the same cookbook, the same recipes for 50 years,” he says. “Our bourbon is high in corn and the ageing process is still as important as it was 60 years ago when Schenley had the plant. We’ve always placed a high priority on sanitation, in the fermentation, the cooking and so forth.” They also chill filter the mature spirit before bottling, rather than use activated charcoal which leaves more flavour in the spirit. In 1984, Elmer was invited to select individual barrels for the introduction of Blanton’s, regarded as the world’s first commercially marketed single barrel bourbon. “We have only one ironclad (metal siding) warehouse on the site, and all the Blanton’s Single Barrel comes out of it,” Elmer explains. “Colonel Blanton produced all the bourbon at the distillery using the same formula. He found that there was an exceptional maturation taking place in Warehouse H, the ironclad, which soon became his favourite aging warehouse. He selected the bourbon for his private stock from this warehouse. I wanted this bourbon to be worthy of the Blanton name and tradition.” Two years after the introduction of Blanton’s Single Barrel, by which time he had become Vice President of Operations, Elmer retired. His
official title today is Master Distiller Emeritus, and he serves as the ambassador for the distillery. “I enjoy doing it,” he says, “and it keeps me up with the business.” Elmer also stops by the distillery one day a week to taste the candidates for the company’s portfolio of single barrel bourbons. Mark Brown explains the philosophy behind the company’s formidable and tantalizing range of spirits, “Recipe and age are the two main differences at Buffalo Trace. We’re the only distillery using five recipes (one wheated, two rye, one straight rye, one barley) for whiskey products, and we have the broadest range (from four to 20 years) of aged whiskey of any American distillery. Consumers have different tastes and we are trying to produce spirits to reflect this.” The greatest excitement while I was there, aside from glorious forays into bottles of W.L. Weller, Eagle Rare 10 year-old and Sazerac 18 year-old Straight Rye, was over the distillery’s new namesake whiskey, Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon. Destined, with good reason, to become the company’s flagship brand, a bottle was fortuitously waiting for the three of us after the distillery tour. As a Kentucky twilight descended upon the spirits sleeping in the valley below, Mark and Elmer explained its pedigree over a reflective dram. “We launched it in August of last year,” says Mark, “and the bourbon drinkers in Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee have been drinking all of it. It looks as though we’ll have to allocate Buffalo Trace state by state and in select overseas markets until production levels can meet the demand.” Elmer explains how the barrels are selected for the new bourbon, which has a mashbill of corn, rye and malted barley: “Our warehouses have used steam heat since the 19th century to help age our whiskey. In the cold months of winter, when it falls below 45 degrees and the spirit goes dormant, we bring the warehouses up to room temperature with the steam pipes. This compensates for the dramatic drops in temperature, gives the whiskey additional cycles in and out of the wood, and makes a more balanced bourbon. It also means that a bourbon aged six years in our system equals around eight years elsewhere.” “There’s no age statement on the bottle,” he goes on, “because that limits you in the selection of barrels. Some barrels are quite mature at six to seven years; others may be nine or 10 years old. Generally, the best are from six to10 years old, depending on the location. You can find excellent bourbons in all locations but again, generally, you’ll find the peak bourbons on the central floors of a warehouse.” I ask him why this is so. “The middle floors of the selected warehouses have the greatest temperature changes in the course of a year,” he tells me, “and this is the key to reaching full maturity and a balanced whiskey. For Buffalo Trace Bourbon, we select around 35 barrels of eight to 10 year old whiskey from the middle floors of rick warehouses ‘I’, ‘C’ and ‘K’. From these barrels, we narrow it down by taste to around 25-30, and bottle this small batch at “Kentucky Proof” (90 proof or 45 per cent abv), the strength most folks in Kentucky like it at. We do the bottling in a special bottling hall with 22 employees, reserved for Buffalo Trace and Blanton’s.” For a man who has been awarded more medals for his whiskey than any other in the industry, Elmer T Lee has a gracious but characteristic response, “I’ve been blessed with the artists who have worked and work here. Their skill and care, their paying attention and taking pride in what they do have won those medals.” As Mark heads off to blaze new traces, Elmer drops two ice cubes and a splash of water into his parting dram of Buffalo Trace, and leaves me with these thoughts:, “The industry is better than ever now. It was floundering for a while but has found its place, thanks to people looking for something better to drink. Most of the time I spent at the plant, there was no marketing or sales people here. When Sazerac bought it, they moved everything and everybody to do with bourbon here to Leestown. There’s 200 people at the plant now, and the marketing folk can touch and feel the whiskey. They see the same things the whiskey makers do, and it makes my heart glad.”
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