Late Buffalo Trace Master Distiller Emeritus Elmer T. Lee. Photo provided by Buffalo Trace
Lexington, KY – Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Ky., announced Tuesday morning the passing of its Master Distiller Emeritus Elmer T. Lee, credited with bringing about a new era in bourbon with the release of Blanton’s in 1984.
Lee, a World War II veteran, retired the year after releasing Blanton’s, the world's first single-barrel bourbon, which is seen as taking the craft of bourbon distilling to a higher level and setting into motion what is now a booming market for one of Kentucky’s signature industries.
Lee was inducted into the Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2001, given the Lifetime Achievement Award from Whisky Advocate in 2002 and the Lifetime Achievement Award and Hall of Fame induction from Whisky Magazine in 2012 according to a letter from Mark Brown, CEO of the Sazerac Company, Buffalo Trace’s parent company.
Lee was born in 1919 on a tobacco farm near Peaks Mill in Franklin County and graduated from Frankfort County High School in 1936, according to the letter from Brown. After working for the Jarman Shoe Company, he served with the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II as a bombardier on a B-29. After flying missions against Japan through 1945, Lee was honorably discharged in January 1946. He returned home and studied engineering at the University of Kentucky, where he graduated with honors in 1949.
In September 1949, he began working in the engineering department of the George T. Stagg Distillery in Frankfort, Ky., now Buffalo Trace. In 1966, Lee was promoted to plant superintendent, responsible for all plant operations and reporting to the plant manager. In 1969, he became plant manager.
A year following his retirement, Elmer T. Lee, a single-barrel bourbon in his honor, was released and is still available today.
“In the world of making really fine whiskey, the role of master distiller is pivotal, but Elmer's meaning to those he met, came to know and worked with closely extended far beyond that of a master distiller,” Brown’s letter reads. “Elmer defined, in the simplest terms, what it means to be a great American — hard working, self-made, courageous, honest, kind, humble and humorous.”
Services for Elmer T. Lee are pending and will be announced shortly.