Drinking with the man himself: Elmer T. Lee and Elmer T. Lee 100 Year Tribute

Most folks in the bourbon world know who Elmer T. Lee is – former master distiller at Ancient Age which became Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, who revolutionized bourbon and began a bourbon renaissance when he developed Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon. After he went into semi-retirement he served as a brand ambassador for the distillery until he passed away in 2013.

While has master distiller at Ancient Age he introduced a bourbon that bore his own name, Elmer T. Lee single barrel. This bourbon differs from Blanton’s in that it is slightly lower proof (90) and the barrels may be picked form warehouses other than Warehouse H. However, these were still sold as his “private selection”, implying that he picked the bottles that bore his name. However, he died in 2013, so at some point, at least at his death, he quit picking barrels I am pretty sure. It is made from the same higher rye corn mashbill as Blanton’s.

Before demand shot up for this whiskey, it was readily available and was one of my go to’s. It was relatively inexpensive as well. But in the last four for five years as demand for Buffalo Trace and bourbon in general has gone up, Elmer T. Lee now is allocated and difficult to find and purchase. Last year, to celebrate what would have been Elmer’s 100th birthday, Buffalo Trace released a special edition 100 proof version. But more on that one in a bit.

The bottle of Elmer T. Lee I am sipping on is a 2015 bottling. My brother in law snatched up cases of this bourbon, one of his favorites, just before it became allocated, and he gives me a bottle every now and again. He swears these bottles were the last barrels Elmer T. Lee picked himself, and while I seriously doubt that given that he died two years before they were bottled I do trust Harlan Wheatley’s palate who learned from the master and so I doubt it makes a real difference as far as taste.

Color is medium amber; not particularly dark. Probably has less age than your typical Blanton’s. On the swirl though is very nice film and legs. A very standard but very nice bourbon profile on the nose. On the palate, sweet candied corn, slight caramel corn and vanilla but very slight at that, and herbal rye spice but a little more mellow than Blanton’s. The rye spice really crescendos on the finish. This bourbon’s flavor is very grain driven, as opposed to barrel driven. I really wish this whiskey was readily available again as I used to make great old fashioneds with it as the herbal rye spice notes added a great deal to the flavor. Old fashioneds are sugar based so sweeter bourbons really don’t add much to the proceedings, but a whiskey like this really added dimensions of flavor. Nowadays, however, you might get shamed by a bourbon nerds for not drinking this unicorn neat.

Now, there is a story about how I got this special bottle of Elmer T. Lee 100 Year Tribute. Last December, Hokus Pokus had a whiskey tasting with a drawing for the opportunity to buy some very limited and allocated bottles. I got lucky when my wife drew and I was able to buy the Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond fall 2019 release. Another friend of mine let me buy the bottle of Shenk’s he pulled. My name never got pulled, but I bought those two bottles, the Blanton’s Hokus Pokus store pick, and a bottle of Glen Grant which I sampled that evening and was blown away. My buddy Tom Spencer, when he pulled, the best bottle available at that point was this one bottle of Elmer T. Lee 100 Anniversary Tribute. I told him to get that one; it is a collector’s item and should definitely be good. He bought it.

Forward to Christmas Eve morning, and I am cooking biscuits, bacon, eggs and grits for the troops (aka. all the kids were home, including our college kids) before heading to celebrate Christmas at my father in law’s with my wife’s family. Tom texts me “wyd?” I told him I was cooking breakfast. He asked if he could come by, and I am like sure. Tom comes over and gives me a Christmas gift bag and sets it on the island in the kitchen. I turn off the burner on the skillet where I have cooked two pounds of bacon and turned around and was like, “what is this?” I opened up the bag and pulled this bottle out. I was truly gobsmacked. I said, “Tom, you won this. You shouldn’t have.” He just said Merry Christmas and hugged me and said I will get out of your hair.

Now, we did open this bottle together on New Years Eve and sampled it together with some of our other friends, like Ken Brown and Kemp Wright. All agreed it was good.

I haven’t blogged since St. Patrick’s Day. I have been slammed with the economic crisis that has affected my own firm and numerous clients of late, somewhat due to the Coronavirus and some due to other factors. I decided to do this review on this particular bottle not just because it was time but to remember the deep friendships I have with Tom, Kemp, Ken, and others, which I can’t enjoy in person right now, but that are still there and will be back in person after this crisis is over. Memories of Christmas and New Years Eve and happier times was what I needed today.

All that being said, what do we have with the Elmer T. Lee 100 Year Tribute? Before I review it, I do want to note that the proceeds of the sales of this bottling (as far as the distillery is concerned) went to VFW Post 4075 in Frankfort, KY, where Elmer was a member. And, as I know Mark Brown, CEO of Sazerac, he probably sent a few cases of this to VFW Post 4075 as well along with the cash. For me, that definitely adds to the cool factor of this bourbon.

The color is slightly darker than the standard Elmer T. Lee. Definitely going to have more barrel influence. On the nose, the traditional bourbon nose has a little extra herbal note, slight burnt sugar, corn, and a slight baking spice note. On the swirl are huge legs. On the palate, huge caramel corn notes, but not Cracker Jack notes, more like fresh popcorn with homemade caramel dumped right on it and you are eating it when it is still hot, some vanilla notes, herbal rye notes dancing in the background, and just a bit of cinnamon. Lovely medium bodied mouthfeel with so much going on with the palate. The finish is long and lingering and not drying. The increased proof alone does not explain how much more intense the flavors are on this bourbon compared to the standard Elmer T. Lee. Clearly some honey barrels were picked for this special release.

Once the bars reopen, if this one happens to be on the list and you are a Blanton’s or Elmer T. Lee fan, this bottle is definitely a must try. If they could find the barrels to do it, Buffalo Trace could put this in a long tall bottle and sell this as part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection each year – Elmer T. Lee, 100 Proof. Maybe age some for 16 years for the BTAC collection? I think this bottle would have quite the following. Truly a delicious bourbon of which Elmer T. Lee would be proud.

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