His 90th birthday certainly warranted celebration. After all, he's one of the few living master distillers to have an eponymous bourbon. In mid-August, a number of the American whiskey industry's luminaries, most of whom happen to be Lee's good friends, came out to honour him at the Buffalo Trace Clubhouse. Wild Turkey's master distiller Jimmy Russell, Craig and Parker Beam of Heaven Hill, Kevin Smith of Maker's Mark and Four Roses' Master Distiller Jim Rutledge were among the attendees at the birthday party, not to mention the scores of distillery employees who've proudly called him a colleague.
A few weeks after the party, I sat down at an imperial mahogany table with Lee in a sunlit room at the Buffalo Trace headquarters, his second home for the past 60 years. He was sporting his sharp plaid flat cap, which has become something of his signature item - his whiskey notwithstanding, of course. The opportunity to chat with Lee is akin to sitting down with, say, Julia Child, who elevated the art of cooking in American, or Duke Ellington, who fused traditional blues, gospel and classical music to pioneer what we now recognise as classic jazz.
But to sit with Lee is to be in the company of a man whose defining personality traits are his humility and unfaltering, instinctive commitment to high standards. It's also to be in the company of a storyteller who offers a first-hand account of how greatness took hold and stayed faithful to its founding values as the industry - not to mention commerce and culture - expanded and changed."
It all dates back to Colonel Howard B. Blanton, who was part-owner and manager of the plant here for many years," says Lee as he places his cane on the table. He was promoted to plant manager and master distiller in 1968 ("I think it was," he notes, furrowing his brow.) He learnt the craft under the company's master distillers Gary Gayheart and Al Geiser. Then in 1984, Ferdie Falk and Robert Baranaskas, the distillery's owners who bought the plant from longtime operators Schenley Distillers, approached Lee inquiring what the company could do to come up with a high-priced, high-quality premium bourbon.
"We tossed around several ideas and the idea that seemed to appeal to all of us was what I had learned from Colonel Blanton," says Lee. "He had a favourite aging warehouse and whenever he needed bourbon for his own personal use or entertainment purposes, he'd go ask for samples out of that warehouse. They were fully aged at eight to 10 years old. And he would taste test them and pick out one of them he thought was the best of the lot and tell them he wanted that bottle for his personal use. That sounded to the new owners of the plant like a good marketable idea."
Hence, the single barrel concept was born. "We properly named that bourbon after Colonel Blanton, calling it Blanton's, which we still do," Lee recalls matter-of-factly. "The thing that made them special and different from run-of-the-mill bourbons is that there are certain warehouses in certain locations that seemed to age bourbon the best." And with just like that, the cryptic science of aging - the somewhat alchemistic coalescence of light, temperature, time and space – is distilled to its essence. Those money spots were pinpointed and a progress flourished. Within a year's time, the company introduced other single barrel labels, like Rock Hill Farms and Hancock Reserve.
In 1986, Lee retired from full time employment and went on what he calls "this consultant basis," a job the company terms master distiller emeritus. His honorary title came with a request. "One of the things involved that Ferdie and Bob asked me when I retired was could they name a bourbon after me? I said, 'Yes, provided you let me pick the bourbon that goes in it,' so I still do that. There are spots - my favourite warehouses are Warehouse I and Warehouse K - and the best bourbons had eight years and nine years of age and come from the fourth, fifth and sixth floors of nine floors, so when they get ready to bottle a batch of Elmer T. Lee, they go to those locations and pull samples out and send them to the lab and I taste test them and they bottle those that meet the standards - and there is a standard established for every brand," he asserts. "You could learn it, but you'd want to practice for a while."
Lee is somewhat nonchalant about the way sweeping advances in technology has changed the craft. But press him, and you'll learn that he doesn't believe that it's had much of an impact. As far as he sees it, the automation of so much of the equipment has only increased the distillery's - and industry's - efficiency.
“The thing I learned most from master distillers – from Gary and Al – in addition to formulas, was the attention we paid to sanitation in the process to produce the products we do. Even though there’s been many, many changes in the distilling process as far as automation is concerned, the process still produces same quality bourbons we made 50 years ago or longer. Automation makes it more efficient, but doesn’t change the process in any way. The master distillery still watches over every step every day. He’s got charts of temperature and pressure and so forth that he can review and look out and see that everything’s in control.”
Angela Traver, Buffalo Trace’s public relations manager, reminded him about current master distiller Harlen Wheatley’s “new toy,” an oversized television screen he recently installed in his office that perpetually monitors levels, temperatures or any other relevant measurement of the distillery’s many pieces of production equipment.
“I sure couldn’t imagine being able to work like that,” says Lee with a sigh. “When I was studying under Geiser and Gayheart, it was purely a walk-around rather than what you’re talking about.”
He asserts he never could have predicted that bourbon would become a product that’s in such high demand in the global marketplace: “When we introduced the single barrel bourbon concept, I had no idea it would become as worldwide as it is and recognised as being top of the line at any distillery. We got the jump on the industry by introducing it in 1984 and the other distillers followed suit, you might say, three to four years after that.”
Lee generally speaks with the ease and contentment of an individual who has a deep-seated value for practice and commitment in many realms of his life. He was struck with pneumonia last February and he admits it took a lot out of him, he speaks fondly of his many hobbies and pastimes, even if he doesn’t much get to them these days. “Before I got incapacitated with illness, I loved to golf and fish, I did a little bit of hunting, but it was mostly with doves. Those are the things I mostly did. And I love to garden. I had a small garden in my backyard and I enjoyed that, too. I had to quit this year because I’m still trying to recuperate from that.” Routine always helps, too. He has a highball every night before dinner, around 6:00. “I’d guess you’d say that’s my favourite time for a drink.”
Before he fell sick, Lee had been trotting the globe as an ambassador, of sorts. He speaks of being just amazed about seeing his bourbons in white table cloth restaurants in his native Bluegrass state as he was to witness American whiskey’s popularity in Japan. His trip east as distiller emeritus was quite different from his first excursion flying planes for the American military.
“I travelled to Japan one time to promote Blanton’s bourbon over there. I was there during World War II— in a bomber. I was a right bombardier on a B-29, so I saw Japan through the radar eyes several times,” he said. “I went to Japan on that promotional trip, got a chance to go to Kyoto, the old Japanese capitol, and it still adheres to a lot of the old procedures and things they did before the emperor. And they love Kentucky Bourbon over there.”
As he was reminiscing, the building’s front door creaked open and slammed shut. Mumbled greetings could be heard outside the room, and then Jimmy Russell, Wild Turkey’s master distiller, shambled into the sepia-toned conference room.
“Hello, Jimmy Russell!” he exclaims with a burst of exuberance, and breaks into an enormous smile. “How ya doin’, Jimmy?
“Alright,” Russell says, milking a few extra syllables out of the word. “How you doin’?” Traver asks if he’d like anything. Water, perhaps? He nods.
“Want a little bourbon with that water?” Lee offers.
The old friends laugh. Lee remarks how pleasantly surprised he had been about his birthday party.
“A lot of friends were here from around town and from the distillery. It’s like Jimmy’s place, it’s a good place to work,” he says. “You really become part of a family. I sure do think it makes product better,” said Lee.
“Everyone feels like it’s part of their life,” Russell chimes in. “Family after family works in the bourbon business – at all the plants, you know. I tell people now: you know it when you’re getting old when you’re working with the grandchildren.” Lee tosses back his head and chuckles.
For Lee, if it wasn’t a calling, his job seems like a natural fit for a young engineer who likes golf, gardening and attention to detail.
“When I was in college. I tried beer –several different beers. I occasionally tried some bourbon. I settled on Kentucky bourbon, like most anybody who’s looking for a good drink. If you settle on Kentucky bourbon, you’re not gonna go wrong.”
“Fads come and go, if you notice,” Russell pipes in, like a guitarist stepping up to accompany the lead singer. “I could remember the wine coolers. That’s all you heard. How much you hear about it now?But bourbon stays the same, people like the taste. Bourbon’s a drink that everybody likes— the taste and flavor. It’s so palatable, you can drink it neat, you can drink it on the rocks, you can mix it.”
“The taste stays with you, don’t it?” says Lee. He, of all people, would know best.