Elmer T. Lee Biography- The Father of the Single Barrel

The bourbon world seems to be in a craze over the grenade shaped bottle of bourbon with the collectable galloping horse atop known as Blanton’s Single Barrel, but whether you are someone who loves or hates the brand, the man who introduced the label to the world changed the course of bourbon into what it is today. Single barrel picks can be found in many stores, restaurants, bars and bourbon societies around the world, but that single barrel concept was very innovative at the time of its commercial release nearly four decades ago and has grown into the success that it is today. Elmer T. Lee is the father of the single barrel in bourbon, a born and raised Kentuckian, an American veteran and a true bourbon legend in his own rights.

On Tuesday August 5, 1919 in Peaks Mill in Franklin County Kentucky, Elmer Tandy Lee was born to the proud parents Ernest Franklin Lee and Ann B. “Annie” Shields Lee. Ernest and Ann were wed just a few years earlier in 1915 and shortly after their marriage they gave birth to Elmer’s younger brother Henry Harrison Lee on September 21, 1916. Elmer’s middle name is usually seen abbreviated, but the name Tandy comes from his paternal grandfather Tandy L. Lee (May 2, 1852-August 6, 1931). On Monday October 19, 1931 when Elmer was just 12 his father Ernest sadly passed away at the young age of 42 of typhoid fever, a rare fever that is caused by Salmonella typhi bacteria. He was laid to rest at the family plot at Peaks Mill Christian Church Cemetery. After the death of her husband, Ann moved Henry and Elmer to Frankfort, Kentucky. There Elmer attended Frankfort High School and was in the graduation class of 1936. After his graduation he began working at the Jarman Shoe Company/General Shoe Corporation, a shoe company that dates back to 1924 but is now known as Genesco.

Elmer held this job until December 1941 when he felt the calling to serve his country during the start of the Second World War. He voluntarily enlisted into the United States Army Air Corps, as it was known at the time of his enlisting, where he served as a crewman on a Boeing B-29 Superfortress as a radar bombardier. The Boeing B-29 was a common plane used during World War II and introduced new technology advancements that helped aid in the war efforts. The bombardier held the responsibility of aiming at targets aboard the bomb carrying aircraft.

Elmer returned back home to Kentucky in 1946 after he was honorably discharged from his duties of serving his country. Upon his return, he took to schooling and began studying electrical engineering at the University of Kentucky School of Engineering. Three years later he graduated with honors from the university in 1949. When seeking out work, Elmer took to the George T. Stagg Distillery, named after the iconic figure by the same name, which at the time was owned and operated by Schenley Distillers Inc. During this time period Colonel Albert Bacon Blanton was the president of the distillery and this was the person Elmer needed to speak to during his interview. Orville Schupp, the supervising engineer at the distillery, brought Elmer to speak to the Colonel to only be told that they were not currently hiring. Orville insisted to Elmer that he come to work at the distillery anyways despite the Colonel’s opposing response. Elmer’s long lasting tenure at the distillery began in September 1949 as a maintenance engineer. Shortly after he began working at the plant, in 1950 he married Elizabeth “Libby” Dean. Together the two of them had a daughter named Peggy.

Elmer held the role of maintenance engineer until 1966 when he was promoted to the plant superintendent of the distillery. In this role he was responsible for all of the operations throughout the plant and answered to the plant manager. After only three years, he was promoted to plant manager himself and earned the ultimate title of master distiller. Throughout his time at the distillery he saw the plant go through modernizations, warehouse growth, downturn in the bourbon industry, the end of segregation as well as the selling of the distillery in 1982. Shortly before his retirement in 1984, Elmer curated the first commercial single barrel brand, Blanton’s Single Barrel, giving birth to a whole new category of the bourbon industry that is still extremely prominent today. At the time that this premium product was introduced, bourbon was not seen as a classy product, but rather a value alcohol. Asking a higher price tag for a product in an industry where value pricing was seen as more important was a crazy idea to some, but Elmer’s idea would soon catch on and help change the pace of the bourbon industry as a whole. The movement started with single barrels then eventually grew to distillers doing small batch premium products. He named the Blanton’s line after Colonel Albert Bacon Blanton who had a major impact on the distillery’s history. When Colonel Blanton would entertain important guests and visitors he would send for special barrels to be selected and bottled so that he could share. One of the perks of being the president of a large distillery is knowing where the best places to find the finest barrels were and for the Colonel that was in Warehouse H. Warehouse H is a metal warehouse that barrels of bourbon were being aged and the Colonel discovered that the material the building was made of allowed for the barrels to age the distillate differently due to how the temperature in the warehouse rises and fall. Bourbon ages in barrels over a period of time and the temperature fluctuations draw the whiskey in and out of the wood bringing the oak influences into the distillate. The metal of the warehouse transfers heat more efficiently, thus heating up the warehouse quicker and impacting the barrels inside. Heat forces the whiskey into the wood causing aging to be sped up. Elmer honored Blanton’s favorite spot and had all of the bourbon for the Blanton’s Single Barrel line pulled from the historical Warehouse H. The same way that Albert Blanton enjoyed his bourbon is the same way that we get to enjoy it today each time we open up a bottle of Blanton’s. Elmer helped to bottle up that piece of history so that we can enjoy it today.

Just a year after fathering the single barrel movement Elmer decided to retire from the distillery in 1985. Even though he retired, Elmer wasn’t too far away. He held on to the title of master distiller emeritus until his passing. Just as Blanton was honored, Elmer was honored after his retirement with his own line of single barrel products, the Elmer T. Lee line. The brand features single barrels selected to the taste preference of Elmer himself. For many years he would taste, choose and approve barrel samples himself that would go into the bottling of the namesake line. On Tuesdays he was known to come by the distillery and go through his sampling then visit the gift shop and sign merchandise. He would look for bourbons that he considered smooth on the palate, no harsh burn, vanilla characteristics and quintessential bourbon flavors that he thought bourbon should taste like. The mash bill in this line of bourbon is known as Buffalo Trace’s mash bill #2, which is the same mash bill as the Blanton’s Single Barrel line. Elmer preferred distillate aged 8-10 years and barrels from the upper areas of Warehouses I and K, so no other location would do for this premium offering honoring the great master distiller. Bottled at 90 proof, Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel is the perfect piece of history to sip on.

In 2001, Elmer was inducted into the Bourbon Hall of Fame, one of the most prestigious awards that someone in the industry could receive. A year later, Whiskey Advocate Magazine awarded him with the Lifetime Achievement Award. The bourbons that he produced and selected have gone on to win numerous awards at reputable contests. Despite all of the many accolades and successes, Elmer was known as a humble man who never let the success change him.

In his personal life, Elmer enjoyed fishing, golfing and gardening. He was a member of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4075. He also gave his time as serving on the board of directors of various organizations such as the Frankfort Country Club, Red Cross, YMCA, Chamber of Commerce, Junior Achievement and First Christian Church. Elmer was a member of the First Christian Church in Frankfort. He also participated as a member of the 315th Bomb Wing Association, Kentucky Order of Colonels and Masonic Lodge Hiram No. 4.

Elmer’s mother, Ann, passed away at the age of 97 on December 16, 1987 at 3:32am following her battle with a long illness. She was laid to rest with her late husband, Ernest, in the family lot in Peaks Mill Christian Church Cemetery. Nearly a decade later, after 56 years of marriage, Elizabeth Lee passed away. The bourbon industry and the world sadly lost the legendary Elmer Tandy Lee on Tuesday July 16, 2013 at the age of 93. His funeral was held on Friday July 19, 2013 at noon at the First Christian Church in Frankfort, Kentucky and was laid to rest at the Sunset Memorial Gardens and Mausoleum in Woodford County, Kentucky. Even though the legend himself is gone, the legacy and impact on the entire bourbon industry and all of those that he touched will never be forgotten.

One thought on “Elmer T. Lee Biography- The Father of the Single Barrel

  1. Pingback: Colonel Albert Bacon Blanton Biography | Sipping History

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