Media Files
Title:
Interview with Elmer T. Lee, October 30, 2008
Collection:
Bourbon in Kentucky: Buffalo Trace Oral History Project
Organization:
Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History
Format:
video
Agent:
Interviewee Elmer T. Lee
Interviewer Thomas Troland
Date:
created 2008-10-30
Identifier:
cms record id 2009oh023_bik004
accession number 2009OH023 BIK 004
Relation:
is part of Buffalo Trace Oral History Project (BIK003)
Format:
video
Description:
summary Elmer T. Lee, retired master distiller of the distillery now known as Buffalo Trace, was born in Frankfort in 1919 and came to work at the distillery in 1949. Before beginning work at Buffalo Trace, he served in World War II and received a degree in engineering from the University of Kentucky. Lee describes his childhood in Kentucky and explains how he began working at the distillery as an engineer and rose to the position of plant manager and, later, master distiller. In this interview, Lee discusses changes to the distillery over time, including changes in ownership, modernization of the production process and changes in the brands produced. Lee describes the addition of single-barrel bourbons to the distillery's products, including his own brand, Elmer T. Lee. He describes the aging and tasting processes and explains how he selects the bourbon for the Elmer T. Lee brand. Lee also describes changes felt by the bourbon industry as a whole, such as the fluctuation of bourbon's popularity in the marketplace and the growth in demand for premium bourbons. In addition, Lee speculates about the future of the bourbon industry.
Keyword:
Frankfort, (Ky.)
World War, 1939-1945
Engineers.
African Americans in the whiskey industry
Subject:
local term Lee, Elmer T., 1919- --Interviews
local term Distillation
local term Buffalo Trace Distillery
local term Liquors--Gaging and testing
local term Whiskey industry--Kentucky
local term Whiskey--Analysis
local term Whiskey
local term Lee, Elmer T., 1919-
Rights Statement:
All rights to the interviews, including but not restricted to legal title, copyrights and literary property rights, have been transferred to the University of Kentucky Libraries.
Interviews may only be reproduced with permission from Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, Special Collections and Digital Programs, University of Kentucky Libraries.
Source Metadata URI:
00048055 (2009oh023_bik004_lee_ohm.xml)
Duration:
01:11:45
No index available for this file.

TROLAND: My name is Tom Troland, and we're interviewing now Elmer T. Lee,
master distiller emeritus of Buffalo Trace Distillery. It is October 30, 2008.
This is part of the Buffalo Trace Oral History product--Project--and we are here
at Buffalo Trace Distillery. So first, uh, thank you so much for taking the time
out to, uh, to--
LEE: You're welcome.
TROLAND: --be involved in this interview. Let's begin with a very general
question: uh, tell me just a little bit about yourself.
LEE: Well, Frankfort is my home. I grew up here, went to school at Frankfort
High and, uh, was in the, after I got out of colle-, uh, high school, I, uh,
worked for, I think, three years for a shoe company here in Frankfort, the old,
uh--I've forgotten the name of the company.
But, uh, then came World War II, and
I was of that age group that was eligible for draft. And I ro-, volunteered and
went into the old Army Air Corps, it was at that time, and spent four, a little
over four years in the service. I spent my time overseas on the island of Guam
in the South Pacific, and I was on a, I was a crew member, a radar bombardier on
a B-29. And after I got out of coll-, uh, the service, I went back to college,
and I had gone to college at UK 1938 and '39 year. And when I came back,
why of
course it was in the forty-sixes, and I went back to college at UK and got my
degree in engineering in 1949. I had worked here during the spring breaks and
the summer vacations from the university. I worked here, uh, part, uh, for a few
weeks, and I got to know the plant, and they got to know me. So when I
graduated, I was offered a job here, and I went to work here in 1949.
TROLAND: Tell me a little bit about, uh, growing up in Frankfort. What was it
like in those times?
LEE: Oh, not too much different, I don't guess. Uh, everybody was in
the same
financial straits at that time as just following the Great Depression and rode
to school on a bicycle or walked to school. And everybody was, as I say, pretty
much in the same straits, and, uh, I graduated from Frankfort High in 1936. And
growing up in Frankfort, uh, was the usual play party times: uh, swimming, uh,
hiking, and, uh, playing with friends, softball, hardball, baseball, that sort
of thing.
TROLAND: When
were you born?
LEE: I was born in August 5, 1919. So that makes me eighty-nine years old now.
TROLAND: You're a young man--
LEE: Oh, yes.
TROLAND: --compared to some that we have interviewed already for this project.
Tell me a little bit about you, your parents.
LEE: My parents? My father was a tobacco farmer, lived in a rural community of
Frankfort, and, uh, he died quite early in life, when I was only nine years old.
He passed away with typhoid fever. My mother moved to town and took a job, uh,
as a, a waitress in a southern hotel, and, uh, that's where she worked while I
was in high school, while I was in, uh, high school.
And following my father's
death, my mother was a single person for quite a number of years, and she
remarried a fellow by the name of Lucian Penn, and then she moved out to the
district that he lived in.
TROLAND: Can you think of an interesting story that happened when you were a
child, maybe involving one or both of your parents?
LEE: A funny story?
TROLAND: A funny story, for example.
LEE: Oh, gee. I can't recall anything right quickly, but, uh, my dad was a
pretty strict disciplinarian. And I can recall, uh, being spanked several times
for misbehaving,
and, uh, he was a good father and a good, good guy.
TROLAND: Do you feel you were, uh, unjustly accused?
LEE: Oh, no. No, no. I was, I was, I was certainly guilty of all the crimes
that he caught me in. (laughs)
TROLAND: Can you think of something, uh, in particular that you learned from
one or both of your parents that perhaps has carried you forward through life?
LEE: Well, certainly both my mother and father were staun-, stout Christian
believers, so I was raised in a Christian church in Peaks Mill and then in Bald
Knob area. And, uh, they gave me, uh, a pretty good direction in life is to love
your fellow beings and,
uh, treat them with respect and, and, uh, you be good,
and they'll be good to you.
TROLAND: Were there any other adults in your life at that time when you were a
young person who had an influence on your thinking or your, your life?
LEE: I'm sure there must have been, but I don't recall them right off the bat.
Uh, as I say, my father was a tobacco farmer, and, uh, he, uh, did not own a
farm. He was a tenant, and, uh, we moved about several times in my childhood.
TROLAND: When you were a young person, for example in high school, what
thoughts did you have about what you wanted to do for the future?
LEE: Well, I always thought I'd
like to be a veterinarian, and, uh, I had that
in mind when I went to college. And when I--first year of college is just sort
of orientation, you know, and, uh, when I came home from service and went back
to college, I was debating either veterinarian college or, or engineering. And I
opted for engineering, and I've often wondered, uh, how things would have been
if I'd have turned out to be a vet. I think I'd have been a good veterinarian,
because I love animals and I like to take care of them.
TROLAND: It sounds as if your interests lay in, uh, either one of the two major
industries in Kentucky--
LEE: Yeah.
TROLAND: --veterinarians associated with horses, and, uh, uh, engineering
ultimately, of course, led to your career--
LEE: Yeah.
TROLAND: --in
bourbon. As you were going through the university at the
University of Kentucky, uh, once you made the choice to, to, uh, pursue
engineering, what were your thoughts then about what the future might, might hold?
LEE: Well, uh, engineers was in pretty high demand when I was in sch-,
engineering college, and even on graduation. Uh, I, as I mentioned earlier, I
think, uh, I worked here during spring breaks and summer break, uh, and I liked
the plant, and I liked the people, and I, I thought this is what I'd like to do.
And they was, offered me the job when I got out of college, and I went to work
here in the fall of
1949 as a, as a plant engineer, or really I was the
maintenance engineer for the plant for two or three years, and then I was made
the, the plant engineer, which covered all of the construction work and
modernization and updating equipment and that sort of thing.
TROLAND: So you, in effect, came to work for Buffalo Trace--although it was not
so called at the time--you came to work here at the distillery immediately after
graduating from college.
LEE: That's right. Correct.
TROLAND: And your choice to work here was largely based upon the fact that you
had already worked here for a period of time.
LEE: I had worked here for a while, and, as I said, I, uh, I knew a lot of
people that worked here, and, uh, everybody spoke
well of the plant and as a
place to work. They paid pretty good wages, and they, uh--it was just a good
place to work.
TROLAND: In those early days, what, what might have been a typical day for you
at work here at the distillery?
LEE: Oh, gee. Uh, as a, when I started the work, as I say, I was in
maintenance, and, uh, you never know what each day's going to bring in that
work. Uh, there'd be some kind of breakdown or, uh, something that needed
maintenance attention when you came to work in the morning, and you'd go about
assigning a personnel to do that work and to take care of it.
TROLAND: So you were already in something of a supervisory position.
LEE: Oh, yes. Oh,
yes. Yes, it was supervisory position, yeah.
TROLAND: What did you like best about your job at that time?
LEE: Well, I guess the thing I liked best about this plant and the job here is
the people that work here. There's a lot of good people working here--was then,
still is--and, uh, that was the pleasant part of the job, was to work with
people that you enjoyed being with and working with.
TROLAND: Was there anything about the job in those early days that you found
perhaps somewhat unpleasant or frustrating?
LEE: Yes, there was some of that, too. Uh, at that, at that time it was in, uh,
the
so-called heyday of the bourbon, when it was coming back after the war
years, and lots of, uh, production. So the plant run on a two-shift basis, and
one part of the plant worked on a round-the-clock basis. So being called at two
o'clock in the morning about some problem in this department that run around the
clock, that was not too pleasant--(laughs)--but it was part of the job.
TROLAND: Did you have any thoughts at that stage early in your career here as
to where the job might lead in the future?
LEE: Well, I had hoped and worked toward becoming a plant manager or, and I was
promoted to a plant superintendent
from engineering in nineteen--I've forgotten
the year, but I was promoted after about fifteen years in engineering. I was
promoted to plant superintendent, they called it at that time, and from that
point, I was then put in some management training programs and, uh, was named a
plant manager in nineteen eighty--no, 1978, I think it was. And I was the plant
manager and the master distiller, uh, from that time till I, till the plant was
sold in 1982. So I went from '68 to '82 as the plant
manager and master
distiller, they called it.
TROLAND: You spoke about the people as being one of the, uh, most enjoyable
aspects of working at this site. Can you think of someone with whom you worked
early in your career here that particularly made a mark upon you, or you
remember very fondly?
LEE: Oh, yes. Certainly so. The person I worked for for a number of years, uh,
who was the plant manager, a fellow by the name of Orville Schupp, he had a
lot--he was an engineer in the background also, a graduate of Purdue, and, uh,
he had a lot of influence on my career here. He and the distiller at that time,
a fellow by the name of Al Geiser, uh,
he was the distiller for many years here,
and, uh, I worked closely with him as a plant engineer and then as a plant
superintendent. So particularly those two guys, and, and, I'm sure there was
many others that I got to know: uh, Ronnie Eddins and, and the, uh, Leonard
Riddle and those guys.
TROLAND: Early in your career here at the distillery, the distillery was under
the operation, as I understand it, of Albert B. Blanton.
LEE: Right.
TROLAND: What do you remember about, uh, Albert B. Blanton?
LEE: Oh, the thing I remember--and I do recall a rather humorous incident on
his, about him. He was the
resident manager and a big stockholder of Schenley
when I came to work here, and Albert was a quiet guy. Uh, knew what he was
doing, had the respect, I think, of all the people at the plant. But when I was
brought in for an interview, when, uh, Orville Schupp brought me in to interview
for a job here when I graduated, and he took me in to see Colonel Blanton. And
the Colonel was in the, the corner office down there, a corner, uh, uh, room of
that office. And when we walked in, he had these, these armbands like you see
gamblers
wearing on each arm, and a green eyeshade on, and he looked up at me.
And, uh, Orville said, "Colonel, this is the young man I've been telling you
about. I'm, I want him to come to work down here. I wanted you to meet him." And
the Colonel looked up out of his, uh, eyeshade. He said, "Son, we're not hiring
any hands today." And I thought that was the end of the convers-, end of the
interview. When we got outside, Orville said, "Don't worry about it; I'll take
care of it. You come to work Monday morning." (laughs) And I did, and every time
I'd pass the Colonel in, on the lot, he'd look at me kind of cross. I could see
what he was thinking: How in the hell did you get in here? (laughs) But, uh, he
was a nice guy, and everybody,
uh, thought highly of Albert. He built a--I guess
you all have been told, uh, the stone house on the hill was, uh, where the
Colonel lived with his wife, and, uh, that's where he lived till he died.
TROLAND: Did you have much interaction with him, uh, during those early years?
LEE: Not too much. Not too much, unh-uh. He retired--uh, I was, was only,
uh--he retired the third year I was working at the plant, so as a plant
maintenance engineer I didn't have too much contact with the Colonel. But, uh, I
knew he was here and I knew who he was, and he was nice to everybody.
TROLAND: So
what do you think happened that day when the Colonel said they were
not hiring anyone and yet you got hired? What was the, the back story there do
you think?
LEE: I don't know. Uh, Orville never did tell me of any further conversations
that he had with, uh, the Colonel, but he, I'm sure he must have. Otherwise he,
I wouldn't have been allowed in the plant. (laughs)
TROLAND: We also have interviewed for this project Jimmy Johnson, as you know.
What do you remember of Jimmy back in the early days?
LEE: I remember him as a, being a, he was a--we called them crew leaders--he
was a foreman of a, a gang of men who had the job of putting new whiskey barrels
in their ricks in the warehouse and also for taking out aged whiskey for
bottling. And I knew Jimmy as being a, a person who was
very likeable, but he
could get a day's work out of, out of his people. And he treated them with
respect, and they, they all liked Jimmy. His, uh, dad--I'm, I'm sure you already
know this--his dad worked here also. I think his grandfather, too.
TROLAND: What do you think the, the environment was for African Americans
working here at that time? Were there, uh, more? Were there a fair number of
African Americans working at the distillery in those early days, or was Jimmy
one of--?
LEE: Not too many. There was, when I came to work here, I guess there was maybe
fifteen out of the whole two hundred and fifty or so people, uh, and their jobs
was generally in the
janitorial type work or what we called the yard work, doing
the maintenance of the trees and the grounds, mowing grass, that sort of thing.
They were, uh, they were treated with, they were treated well, but they was
treated separately sort of. There was separate restrooms. Downstairs in the
cafeteria, they had a special room for the blacks to eat in, and that was, went
on until about, oh, when the Equal Opportunity Act came into being--and I've
forgotten the year there--but it was, uh, at that time, why, we integrated
all
of them. And the blacks began to enter in all of the jobs that they was, uh, bid
on in the union way of doing things.
TROLAND: Tell me a little bit about, uh, sort of your mid-career here. You, uh,
began as an engineer, and then as time went on, you assumed more and more responsibility.
LEE: Right.
TROLAND: Uh, tell me a little bit about how things were on the job, let's say,
maybe ten or fifteen years after you began working here.
LEE: Well, at, at that time it was a, a booming operation. They, as I
mentioned, they was do-, on a two, two-shift basis, and they did a lot of
bottling, a lot of shipping. [Whistle sounds.]
LEE: There's Harlen.
TROLAND: What was that--

LEE: That's--
TROLAND: --sound that we just heard?
LEE: That's a whistle telling everybody it's twelve o'clock. It's a, it's a
horn in the boiler room, it's operated by steam pressure, and, uh, they blow it
at twelve o'clock. And I think they--I'm, I'm not sure--I believe they blow it
again at four o'clock. Anyway, I know they blow it at noon.
TROLAND: Is that a longstanding tradition?
LEE: Yeah.
TROLAND: Have they been doing that for many years?
LEE: It' s been there all, all my life, all my time, anyway. They've, uh, had a
steam whistle that they blew at noon.
TROLAND: Do you start to feel hungry as soon as you hear that whistle blowing?
LEE: (laughs) You know, you know it's time to, to go to lunch, yeah.
TROLAND: So we were talking about your mid-career here--
LEE: Um-hm.
TROLAND: --uh, as you gathered more and more responsibility and
the plant was
doing very well. Uh, fifteen or so years after you began working here, what,
what might a typical day have been like for you?
LEE: Well, I was placed with the distiller. I was, went into what they called
management training at the time, so I spent some time with the distiller, Al
Geiser. And, uh, the typical day would be to be with him and stay with him and
learn everything I could, ask as many questions as I wanted to, and, and then I
did the same thing over in the warehouse department and then the bottling
department. It was a training program for management, and after that--I was in
that program for about, close to a year, and,
uh, then I was made the plant
superintendent, and then I became responsible for those departments that I'd
been understudying.
TROLAND: So what in particular were you responsible for as plant
superintendent, and were there some things in the plant that you were not
responsible for?
LEE: There wasn't anything that I wasn't responsible for. Everything that took
place at the plant in the way of, of manufacturing, making the bourbon, aging
the bourbon and bottling the bourbon and shipping the bourbon was all part of my
responsibility to answer to the plant manager.
TROLAND: Now, you became plant manager yourself at a certain point?
LEE: Yes. After I was in pla-, uh, plant superintendent
for about three years,
then I was made the plant manager in 1968.
TROLAND: And what were the, what were the differences in responsibility between
the plant superintendent, which you had been, and the plant manager, which you became?
LEE: Hardly any difference really. When I left the plant superintendent's job
it was not replaced, so I just simply moved my desk to a different location, and
I had the same responsibilities really that I had, uh, as a superintendent, only
I wasn't answering. As a superintendent I answered to the plant manager, and
then when I became plant manager, why, I answered to our central office in Cincinnati.
TROLAND: Who
owned the distillery at that time? Who--
LEE: Schenley.
TROLAND: Schenley.
LEE: Schenley owned it for--they became ownership, 1929 they bought the plant,
and they sold it in 1982. They sold it to, uh, some people who had been in the
bourbon business: a couple of gentlemen, one of them from New York and one of
them from Owensboro. Uh, they bought the plant. They got the financing necessary
to buy the plant, and they bought it. And they operated it for ten years.
TROLAND: Excuse me. (coughs) Just had to do that. What was your feeling about
Schenley management?
Do you feel they wisely managed the plant? Did you get
along well with the management?
LEE: Yes, uh, as a, as--I answered to the, as the plant manager, I answered to,
uh, an office in Cincinnati. They had a, that was their production headquarters;
was not their sales headquarters, but production headquarters. And, uh, I got
along well with those people in Cincinnati. As long as you kept the bottom line
right, why, you got treated well.
TROLAND: How did the position of master distiller, uh, come into existence? You
already were in charge of the entire plant.
LEE: Yeah.
TROLAND: And so adding another title to your name must have had a purpose. How
did that happen?
LEE: Uh,
it happened when the plant was sold to the people I mentioned. Uh, in
addition to the plant management job, they, uh, also named me as the master
distiller. Now, of course, there was a distiller doing the job. I was just a
figurehead to, to, uh, be responsible for what he was doing.
TROLAND: So at that time, the addition of the term "master distiller" didn't
change your job responsibilities really.
LEE: Not at all. It sure didn't.
TROLAND: What do you think was the thinking behind creating a, a new title, uh,
for someone who would continue to do the same work?
LEE: Same work. I don't know. I really don't know. Uh, the, uh,
apparently the
people who owned the plant, uh, felt this was a, a title that was, they could
use in marketing and advertising, promotion.
TROLAND: That's interesting, because certainly in modern times, as you very
well know, master distillers, uh, become the public face in some sense--
LEE: Yeah.
TROLAND: --of, of the distillery. Uh, so you think perhaps the--
LEE: That's--
TROLAND: --beginning of that concept was, was you?
LEE: That was right. That's correct. That's when they, uh, started calling on
me for promotional type work, being a figurehead, representing the plant locally
and, and in the marketplace, uh, doing quite a bit of traveling to, uh, promote
the brands,
and, uh, that was, I think, what was behind it.
TROLAND: Was that concept of having a publicly visible master distiller a new
concept at that point in the bourbon business?
LEE: It was to me. I don't know. Uh, there was, uh, some of our competitors
used the same terminology of "master distiller" for their distiller, and, uh,
still do. Jimmy Russell over at Wild Turkey and Booker Noe down at Bardstown
and, and those people.
TROLAND: So in some ways, this new title did confer, did confer additional job
responsibilities, because in addition to managing the plant--
LEE: Oh, yeah. It did.
TROLAND: --you now were becoming more and more the public face of, of the distillery.
LEE: Becoming more involved with the, uh, sale
and distribution of the product, yeah.
TROLAND: Did you enjoy that? Was that--
LEE: Yes, I did. I really did. Uh, I was obligated by Schenley to, to make at
least one c-, uh, visit a month to one of our distributers and, you know, uh,
visit with them and talk to them about our product and what kind of job we was
doing for them and that sort of thing.
TROLAND: What, uh, what was the organization to whom the distillery was sold in
1982? You've said several people, but who were these people?
LEE: Uh, one of them was, uh, he was involved in sales, uh, with Schenley at
one time. He was
quite well known in the marketplace, I know, and the other guy,
Bob Barenascus, he was a financial-type guy. He knew how to, as I was told when
I found out the plant was sold, I asked my boss in Cincinnati, I said, "What
about these guys? What, what are they like?" He said, "Well, Fergie Falk," who
was the, one of the guys, said, "He knows how to sell whiskey," and said, "Bob
Barenascus knows how to make a buck." So they pegged them real right, because--I
don't want to speak against them too much, but they, they took a lot out of this
plant. They sold the assets off and, uh, didn't spend the money necessary to
maintain the plant like it should have been maintained, and they sold it, of
course, to, uh, Sazerac in 1980, eighty--1992.
TROLAND: So is it a fair assessment that the distillery was going downhill,
let's say in the early eighties?
LEE: Oh, it, it really was down, going downhill fast. Uh, it'd gotten pretty
run down when, uh, Sazerac or the present company bought it. Uh, they seen fit
to put quite a bit of money into bringing it back up to its former self and, uh,
modernizing and updating the equipment. They've spent a whole lot of money on
making it a
good, uh, good distillery out of it.
TROLAND: The decline of the distillery in the eighties, uh, was that, you
think, more the result of perhaps management decisions at that time by the
current owners, or rather the owners of that time? Or did it partially reflect a
downturn in the bourbon business worldwide?
LEE: It reflected the, uh, downturn in the bourbon business. It really went,
went way down in the eighties. Uh, result of several factors, uh, health factor
being one; uh, MADD, drunk driving, MADD, uh, impact on the business; and, uh,
the public seemed to be turning toward other products other than whiskey. The,
uh, I think a Scotch whiskey was quite popular then. The Canadian whiskey was
quite popular, and, uh, bourbon kind of went down, down the long--it even went
way down. And the idea of the single-barrel bourbon, which I was manager at the
time, uh, and the concept of selecting the best aged whiskey and bottling it one
barrel at a time started with the, uh, first brand we put out
was Blanton's,
named Blanton's. And, uh, it didn't take off very well. The first year or two
was just--they spent more money on advertising than they did on, uh, return, but
as the word got out and people started trying it, uh, it took a turn up; it's
still going up. The single-barrel bourbons, the premium bourbons, has, uh, I
won't say dominated the market, but they've got a big place in the marketplace now.
TROLAND: Tell me a little bit about the development of the Blanton's brand. It
was the first single-barrel bourbon, as you've said. Someone had to have that
idea. Who had that idea, and how did it germinate?
LEE: Well, uh, the manager, it's--uh, not the manager--the, Bob
Barenascus,
the, one of the owners of the plant, came to me, and I was the manager. Said,
"Elmer, we want to come out with a premium bourbon. Give us your thoughts and
ideas as to how we can develop, uh, a, uh, premium price bourbon." Well, we
kicked around a lot of ideas, but the one idea that caught on to his fancy when
I told him about Albert Blanton's, uh, lifestyle. He had parties quite often,
and when he did, he'd ask the warehouseman to bring him some samples out of his
favorite warehouse, and he'd tell him, he'd tell him what age he wanted, and it
was eight years or better. And bring him those samples, and he'd sample them and
taste-test them. And he would pick out one or two barrels, and he'd say, "Bottle
those for me." And he'd use those for his entertainment purposes. Well, that
sounded like a pretty good thought and idea to Bob Barenascus. And he says,
"We're going to go with that, and we want you to select the bourbons that goes
into this Blanton. We're going name it Blanton." And they designed a--or didn't
design--they selected a very distinctive bottle for it, and, uh, capped it off
with a stopper that had a racehorse on it, and, uh,
put it out in the market.
The first market was nineteen--fall of 1984, and, uh, like I say, it didn't do
much the first year. But as the word got out, why, uh, the, uh, Bob invited our
competitors to do the same sort of thing, and none of them responded to him, for
we, after the Blanton was introduced, we came out with the Rock Hill Farms,
Hancock Reserve. And, uh, then when I retired in 1986, they asked me if I could,
if they could name a bourbon after me. I told them, "Yes, provided you let me
pick the bourbon." And they said, "no problem."
So they still, I still select
the barrels for that, but any rate the, uh, single-barrel bourbons and the
so-called small-batch bourbons are, are the bourbons that are growing, uh, more
than any other element of the business.
TROLAND: A point is made with the Blanton's label in particular that it comes
from Warehouse H.
LEE: That's correct. That was the Colonel's favorite house. He thought, with
his taste, he thought it aged the best bourbon at the plant, and, uh, we still
continue that practice. All the Blanton's come out of Warehouse H. It's an old
metal-clad building that, uh, changes temperatures with, with the,
whenever the
temperature outside changes, it changes inside just as well, and, uh, he liked
that house. Now that isn't, uh, it isn't my favorite warehouse. My favorite
warehouse is Warehouse I and K because it seems to age the bourbon, for my
brand, the best, and that's where I get all of the samples for, for that brand.
TROLAND: Why do the different warehouses age the bourbon in a different way?
LEE: (laughing) I wish I knew the answer to that. Uh, they do, I know. That I
know. I suppose part of it is due to the, uh, orientation of the house with the
compass, whether it's north or south or east or west, and the prevailing winds
or prevailing
atmosphere, uh, is different in different houses due to the way
they are oriented.
TROLAND: So would it be fair to say that, that the warehouse in which the
bourbon is aged and perhaps the level, uh, above the ground that the barrels sit
is the most important factor in determining the, the flavor profile of the, of
the final product?
LEE: Uh, each one of our premium bourbons, all our single-barrel bourbons and
our Buffalo Trace bourbon, which is a small-batch bourbon, they're always in the
upper floor levels of the warehouse, and they, uh, they're usually aged eight
years or so. And so the
premium bourbons all are aged, as we call it, that
they're selected at the peak of their taste test, and, uh, they come out of the
various warehouses at the upper level. And, uh, each, each brand, each one of
these brands has got a, uh, a standard established, and those were done with, by
taste-testing of our, our people that's on the taste panel. They were
established, and once they're established and accepted as being what they want,
then when we taste-test individual barrels, we taste it against, we taste the,
the standard first, and you remember that, and then each sample you taste after
that, it either matches or it doesn't match with that standard. Uh, if they're,
if the selection has been the way in the upper floors and eight years or so,
they'll mostly match, but, uh, there's a panel of about nine, about nine or
twelve people on the panel, and at least four or five of us taste each round of
samples. And, uh, if they're approved, they're marked approved, and they're
bottled one barrel at a time.
TROLAND: What is special about the
upper levels of the warehouse, or what is
different about the upper levels of the warehouse compared to the lower levels?
LEE: They seem to change--the thing, one of the things that brings about good
aging is change of temperature, and you have, uh, more change of temperatures in
the midsection and upper section than you do down on the lower section. Uh, the
lower sections, uh, will maintain their temperatures. Uh, they don't fluctuate
like the, uh, upper levels do.
TROLAND: And so what use would you put to bourbon that, for example, has been
stored on the very lowest level of a warehouse?
LEE: Uh, the, some of those, uh, bourbons on the lower levels are
designated
for some of the brands with higher age. We've got brands that's bottled at
twelve years old, fifteen years old, up to twenty years old, and those you want,
you don't want them to age too quickly. They go over the hill if you do, so, uh,
they put on--the barrels that are put on the first floor generally will wind up
in one of those type brands.
TROLAND: So if you wish to age your bourbon for a long time, you keep it on the
lower level, and if you wish to age the bourbon in a shorter time, you put it on
the upper level. What, in your opinion at least, is the ideal age for bourbon?
LEE: Eight to ten years old. Now, Blanton's generally
is nine years old or
thereabouts. Uh, Elmer T. Lee is nine to ten years old. Uh, Rock Hill Farms,
they're all at nine, eight to ten years old, and, uh, Buffalo Trace started
out--still is--nine, about nine to nine-and-a-half years old. So you get your
smoothest tasting bourbon at, in my opinion, in the eight- to ten-year class.
Now once it gets over that old--and we do have some brands that are fifteen
years old, uh, we, in a joint venture with the, uh,
uh--I can't recall their
names right quick.
TROLAND: Julian Van Winkle?
LEE: Van Winkles. They got one twenty-three years old and, uh, it's pricey, but
to me, to my taste, I don't prefer that, because it, it gets too woody tasting
and it, you get a tannic acid type taste. You get an acid taste, but a lot of
people like that. They want it to taste that way, so there's a market for it.
TROLAND: Tell me a little bit more about the Elmer T. Lee brand. Uh, as you
said earlier, that was established some years ago, uh, upon your retirement, is
that not true?
LEE: In 1986. Uh-huh.
TROLAND: In 1986. Uh, tell me a bit about your, the process of selection. When
you do that, uh, tell me what you look, what you're looking for.
LEE: I'm looking for what
I consider to be the proper taste for bourbon. It's
going to have the characteristics that good bourbon has. It's going to have
vanilla-type taste. It's going to have a smooth taste to the, to the palate.
It's going to have some, uh, vanilla--I mentioned that--vanilla taste to it,
and, uh, it's just a good smooth bourbon flavor to it. Highly flav---not highly
flavored, but it's got a good flavor to it, and it don't have an aftertaste burn
to it. That's the things I, I guard against when I'm tasting it.
TROLAND: Imagine a day that you come in here to the distillery to make some
barrel
selections. Uh, on a day when you come in to do so--
LEE: Yeah.
TROLAND: --to select barrels, how many barrels do you taste, for example? How
long does that process take?
LEE: It takes, uh, if, as you probably would think, if you taste about eight or
ten samples, your taste buds begin to become numb, so you've got to take a
break. So if there's twenty-five samples to be evaluated, I'll do about eight or
ten of them, and then I'll take a break for a while. Then I'll come back and do
the rest of them, or come back maybe two, two different times. And, uh, we do
have water available. We rinse our mouth out after each taste test, and, uh,
after it's tasted, your taste buds primarily are, are--the most sensitive ones
are on the side of your mouth, and you kind of wallow the sample around in your
mouth, and then you spit it out after you've tasted it. You certainly couldn't,
couldn't drink all of those samples and get out very well.
TROLAND: What fraction of the barrels that you taste do you eventually, finally
choose for the Elmer T. Lee brand?
LEE: Uh, the last, within the last year it's been, been high, 90 percent or
better. Out of the twenty-five bottles that I did on Monday, uh, I think it was
only three rejects that I, I took, and not only I,
but the people on the panel,
they will not, do not bottle any batch or barrel until at least three, three
people or more have taste-tested it. And any one person can reject, anyone on
the panel. So generally I notice, uh, after we, uh, taste-test, we sign off on
it. I notice, uh, oh, in the last few months, there's been at least five or six
people tasting, uh, every batch that comes up for taste test.
TROLAND: What is the basis for choosing the barrels that you will taste?
Certain warehouses, certain positions in the warehouses? What do you use to make
that choice initially?
LEE: Well, each,
each warehouse has got a profile that's supposedly followed.
When we make the whiskey, we put away so much in this warehouse, so much in that
warehouse, and the, uh, selection then becomes from those locations for whatever
brand you have that you're looking for. For instance, on the Buffalo Trace, all
of those barrels comes out of Warehouse C--B? C, yeah. Warehouse C, and they're
generally out of the third floor up.
TROLAND: What are your thoughts about barrel-strength bourbons?
LEE: Barrel-strength bourbon?
TROLAND: That is to say--

LEE: Yeah.
TROLAND: --bourbons that are sold as some of the antique collection--
LEE: At--
TROLAND: --uh, the bottles are sold at barrel strength.
LEE: Yeah. That, there's a marketplace for them, but, uh, uh, how anyone can
drink those straight is beyond me. Uh, they need a lot of dilution with
distilled water or water or whatever you use for, uh, mixing your drink with,
but, uh, we have a, uh--I believe, uh, George C. Stagg is bo-, barrel strength.
Uh, Booker Noe down at Bardstown, his, his bourbon, Booker's, is barrel
strength: 137 proof. You know, golly. That's pretty potent.
TROLAND: If
you buy a barrel-strength bourbon and then add water to reduce the
proof to normal drinking proof, you still have something that is different from,
uh, for example, Elmer T. Lee, because of the barrel strength, the product has
not been chill-filtered.
LEE: That's right.
TROLAND: What do you think, uh, if any, is the effect of chill filtration?
LEE: Chill filtration is the preferred filtration system at this plant. It does
take some of the color and a little bit of the taste from the product, so you
want to minimize that in your filtration process, and, uh, chill filtration is
what we do. Now, there was a time when Bob and Fergie were running the plant,
they went to charcoal filtration, which I didn't, I argued against.
But, uh, I
don't know, I couldn't tell you what, uh, other plants use. I think Wild Turkey
uses chill filtration. Uh, down at, uh, Beam, I don't know what, whether,
whether they use chill filtration or, or, uh, charcoal, but that's the two main
filtration systems. TRAVER: Got two minutes left.
TROLAND: Okay. Uh, why don't we stop then, and just put it [End of first
videocassette.] [Beginning of second videocassette.]
TROLAND: This is tape two. Uh, my name is Tom Troland, and we are interviewing
Elmer T. Lee, Master Dilstiller Emeritus at Buffalo Trace Disilltery. It is
October 30, 2008. This is part of the Buffalo Trace Oral History Project with
the interview, in fact, taking place at Buffalo Trace Diltillery. Tell me
something about the brands that were
produced here at the distillery prior to
the early eighties; prior to this explosion of boutique brands.
LEE: Ancient Age is one of the, flagstaff--flagship brands that Schenley had
for this brand. Echo Springs, Cream of Kentucky, uh--there were several brand
sthat I can't recall right, minor brands, but the had, oh, eight, eight or nine
brands that they were doing here. Ancient Age was the big, big volume item;
about a million and a half cases a year.
TROLAND: Were these
different brands targeted at different market segments?
LEE: Uh, I don't know how the sales force decided or made those decisions, but
like you say, there was--different brands was targeted at different locations.
Ancient Age was big in Florida, uh, North/South Carolina, Texas, uh, Arkansas,
California and, uh, some of the, uh--the Echo Springs was mostly Ohio, I think.
But at any rate, like you mentioned there was different brands that seemed to be
targeted for certain areas, certain
states.
TROLAND: Let me read a quotation from you from a book recently published. Uh,
the quotation is as follows: "Some of the bourbons I've tasted that were made
before prohibition were very similar to some of our good, high-end bourbons
now." What did you mean by that?
LEE: (Laughing.) I meant that for my taste the bourbons, the high-end bourbons
now, uh, paralleled those made prior to prohibition. Uh, the--prior to
prhobition--actually, we haven't changed too many things about our distilling
process from that time to this time. A little
change in formula, a little change
in distillation proof, different aging procedures, but pretty much the same,
same way it was made then is being made now. I had an opportunity to taste a
pre-prohibition bottle, uh, and it had a pretty good taste to it, I thought. It
was, uh, Jim Murray --who's a spirits writer--, uh, picked that bottle up in
Italy and, uh, had it with him, and we was out here in the clubhouse. And Mark
Brown and myself and, uh, Jim Murray opened that bottle and each one of us
taste-tested it, and all of us thought that was pretty good stuff.
TROLAND: So
that kind of suggests that the standard bourbon of pre-prohibition
times was similar in quality to the very best bourbon today.
LEE: Well, the best bourbons that was made pre-prohibition is, uh, might be
true of. I'm sure there was bourbons then that wasn't up to what we think would
be standard now.
TROLAND: Perhaps the bourbon, the pre-prohibition bourbon that you tasted was,
in fact, among the best, uh, available at that time.
LEE: It, that could be.
TROLAND: Tell me a little bit about how the bourbon industry has changed over
time. You've been a part of it for so long, uh, surely you've seen major changes
either in the production process or in the management process or in the
marketing process. What's one difference or one big change you have
noticed over
your years in the field?
LEE: Well, being a production man myself, uh, the major change that's take
place in the production end of the business, the formula--the recipe--has been
changed some, but not significantly. The biggest change has been in updating
equipment and putting it under computer control rather than manual control.
Prior to the updating and computer controls, it was all dependent on an
individual, how well he did his job each day and following, following the, uh,
process the way it's supposed to be. And, uh, Harlen has been able to modernize
and
put, uh, computer controls on most of the operation now; uh, making
operation. Uh, there hasn't been too much change in the warehousing procedures.
Uh--there hasn't been a lot of changes in the bottling procedures either except
to, uh, update equipment and make it higher speed and more productive.
TROLAND: What about changes in public perception of bourbon over the time that
you have been in the industry?
LEE: I think the perception has swung to our favor, the bourbon favor, in the
last, certainly
within the last ten years. Prior to that, uh, uh, bourbon wasn't
one of the favorite drinks in the marketplace but, uh, I think it's changed now
to where a lot of people are drinking bourbon rather than scotch or Canadian or,
or tequila or rum or some other alcoholic drink.
TROLAND: When you were first entering the industry and when you were, uh, just
out of school, uh, what was the public perception of bourbon at that time, do
you think, and was it something commonly consumed here in Kentucky, for example,
just a regular drink or was it something that was rather rarely consumed?
LEE: I'm sorry. I didn't understand you.
TROLAND: When you were--that's fine--when you were, uh, first getting into the
bourbon industry, what was the public perception or bourbon at that time? Was it
something you just drank, uh, very frequently or is it something you didn't
drink very often and was thought to be evil? What was the thought?
LEE: I think the perception in the public was generally favorable. Uh, people,
uh, probably didn't drink as much then as they are now, uh, but it was a pretty
favorable position when I came to work here. Uh, bourbon was still riding a
pretty good wave, and it didn't start going down until the, till the eighties.
TROLAND: How would you like to see the bourbon industry change in the future?
Is there some direction in which you think it might go that would be useful, productive?
LEE: No.
I would say keep doing what you're doing, but try to do it better. Uh,
I don't believe the, the bourbon recipe is going to change very much. It did
change gradually back in the forties and early fifties. Uh, they changed the
recipe and the process to make it a little more palatable, smoother than
oper--in the past, but, uh, been very little changes in the process.
TROLAND: There
has already been a book written on the history of this
distillery and no doubt sometime in the future--let's say ten, twenty or more
years in the future--another history of this distillery will probably be
written. What would you like, uh, such a book to say about you?
LEE: What would they say about me? I'd hope that they'd, uh, see me in the
light of being a good manager, a person who treated his people--the
employees--fairly and squarely and, uh, not a hard person to get along with.
TROLAND: When you sit down to drink some bourbon I suppose it's almost certain
that you would choose Elmer T. Lee.
LEE: I do.
TROLAND: How do you, how do you drink it?
LEE: How do I drink it? I--different people have
different tastes, of
course--but I like a little soda with lime/lemon flavor--7Up, Sprite, something
like that--but, uh, I take, put out a, a shot--1 oz.--over ice cubes and a
little bit of 7Up or Sprite. That's the way I like it. As lot of people are
drinking it with Coca Cola which, uh, don't appeal to me, but it's, a lot of
people drink it that way. A lot of people drink it straight up or, you know,
without anything but water and some of them drink it straight, uh, by just, just
a shot down.
TROLAND: Is
there anything else that I haven't asked you that you might like to say?
LEE: Well, I appreciate you all's thinking about our industry and our plant and
that you are going to put this in the archives at the University of Kentucky. I
hope I get a chance to, to go up and view it when it's all complete.
TROLAND: Well, Mr. Lee, thank you very much for taking the time for this
interview. It's, uh, been a fascinating opportunity to hear your thoughts on
this industry of which you've been a part for so many years.
LEE: Thank you so much, Tom.