Over the past two years, Elmer T. Lee has become a rarity on retail shelves. It had been somewhat of a hidden gem – far less glamorous than its mash bill brother Blanton’s – but quietly better balanced. Of course, it is named after the legendary Elmer T. Lee (1919-2013), who was hired in 1949 by Col. Albert B. Blanton when Buffalo Trace was called the George T. Stagg Distillery. He worked his way up through the ranks from a maintenance engineer all the way to Master Distiller.
By the time Elmer retired in 1985, he had sparked a revolution in Bourbon that is probably partially responsible for the wild success of Bourbon today: he introduced the first single-barrel Bourbon since the time when Bourbon was sold to consumers by the barrel, honoring Col. Blanton by naming it Blanton’s Single Barrel. After he retired, Elmer himself was honored with a single barrel Bourbon bearing his name, using the same mash bill as Blanton’s (the former Ancient Age mash bill, now known as Buffalo Trace’s mash bill #2) but aged around nine years instead of six years for Blanton’s. Although he had officially retired, Elmer continued as Master Distiller Emeritus, and he helped select the barrels for his namesake brand.
Elmer died in 2013, at the age of 93. Bourbon enthusiasts suggested that the proof of Elmer T. Lee should be raised from 90 to 93 in Elmer’s honor, and word spread about the great value of Elmer T. Lee. Buffalo Trace announced that it would in fact honor Elmer, but instead of permanently raising the ABV, it produced this Commemorative Edition at 93 proof, with limited allocation. Buffalo Trace also used profits from the sale of the Commemorative Edition to support the local VFW Post 4075, in which Elmer was active (Elmer had served as a radar bombardier in WWII).
As Elmer T. Lee has become scarce on store shelves, its price has gradually increased over the past year. I recall Elmer T. Lee being priced at $28.99, then last fall it was $31.99, this summer I found it for $35.99, and $40.00 retail prices are being reported. Fortunately, Buffalo Trace’s MSRP was $34.99 for the Commemorative Edition.
Bourbon: Elmer T. Lee Commemorative Single Barrel
Distillery: Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, Kentucky
Age: NAS, but typically 9 years old
Proof: 93 proof
The Commemorative Edition has the same amber gold color as the standard Elmer T. Lee.
The nose has rich sweetness of caramel and vanilla, honey with light fruit, along with cinnamon, black pepper and oak. Very well balanced.
Classic Elmer T. Lee. The taste follows the lead of the nose with honey, caramel and toffee sweetness dominating, but it’s not too much, and instead is balanced with oak, cinnamon and pepper spice. The lighter fruit (apples and pear) transition to more of a plum flavor. It’s warm without being hot. Whether at 90 or 93 proof, this is a Bourbon to sip neat.
The Commemorative Edition finishes by moving away from sweetness to more spices, for a great warming sensation that lingers.
This was another Bourbon that I had hoped to review months ago (long before the flood of fall releases), but it was so much like the standard Elmer T. Lee that it fell behind. It is so similar to the standard Elmer T. Lee – which is one of my favorites – that any extra value is really just in having the unique commemorative bottle, not necessarily what’s inside. To the credit of Buffalo Trace, though, this Commemorative Edition was not priced to drive profits. In this current environment of price gouging, Buffalo Trace did the right thing.
Comparing Elmer T. Lee Commemorative to other spring releases, it’s better that the Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary (and costs a fraction of the price), but it’s nowhere near as good as the Four Roses 2014 Limited Edition Single Barrel (which retailed for $90). Elmer T. Lee and the Commemorative Edition are still one of the reigning “price performers” and I highly recommend that you buy one or the other if you’re lucky enough to find them.
Score on The Sipp’n Corn Scale: 4.0
The Sipp’n Corn Scale™:
1 – Wouldn’t even accept a free drink of it.
2 – Would gladly drink it if someone else was buying.
3 – Glad to include this in my bar.
4 – Excellent bourbon. Worth the price and I’m sure to always have it in my bar.
5 – Wow. I’ll search high and low to get another bottle of this.