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Issue 85 - The way of a Master

Whisky Magazine Issue 85
January 2010


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The way of a Master

Liza Weisstuch talks bourbon history and more with the man credited with revolutionising American whiskey – Elmer T Lee.

When Elmer T. Lee graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1949 with a degree in engineering, the last thing on the Kentucky lad's mind was revolutionising the American whiskey industry and advancing its public image on the world's stage. But throughout his career, which started that same year when he was hired as a plant engineer for the Buffalo Trace distillery and continues today with his service as master distiller emeritus, that's essentially what he's accomplished. A lofty assertion? Indeed, but considering that Lee, in his six decades in the industry's trenches, was the one who introduced the drinking public to the concept of single barrel bourbon, it's a defensible claim.

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 plai...

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