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. 1:00But, 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 service. I spent my time overseas on the island of Guam in the South Pacific, and I was on a, I was a crewmember, 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, 2:00and 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 3:00the 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 your, 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 the 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, 5:00my 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 6:00and a good, good guy.

TROLAND: Do you feel you were, um, 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 a, a pretty good direction in life is to love your fellow beings and, uh, treat them 7:00with 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 8:00had 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, off-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 a maintenance 10:00engineer 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 11:00and 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 to 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 uh, 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 13:00after 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 runs 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 14:00in 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 1980--no, 1978, I think it was. And I was the plant manager and the master distiller, uh, from that time 'til I, 'til the plant was sold in 1982. So I went from sixty-eight to eighty-two as a plant manager and 15:00master 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, fellow by the name of Al Geiser, uh, he was the distiller for many years here, and, uh, 16:00I 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 17:00of 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 18:00looked up at me. And, uh, Orville said, (coughs) "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. 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, um, 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, 19:00thought 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 'til 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, 21:00out 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 22:00we 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 23:00jobs 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.] 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 25:00plant 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 26:00I 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 27:00years, 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 su-, 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, feel they wisely 29:00managed 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, a 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, 31:00apparently 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, 32:00I 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 33:00product, 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 34:00know, and the other guy, Bob Baranaskas, 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, Ferdie Falk," who was the, one of the guys, said, "He knows how to sell whiskey," and said, "Bob Baranaskas 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 so-, sold the assets off and, uh, didn't spend the money necessary to maintain the plant like it should have 35:00been maintained, and they sold it, of course, to, uh, Sazerac in 1980, 80--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 equipment. They've spent a whole lot of money on making it a good, uh, good 36:00distillery 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 at 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 37:00products 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 38:00Blanton'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 39:00Baranaskas, 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, s-, 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 40:00age 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'd 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 Baranaskas. 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, 41:00put it out in the market. The first market was 19--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 42:00still 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 43:00changes, 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: (laughs) 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 44:00different 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 45:00bourbons 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, 46:00and then each sample you taste after that, it, 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 47:00what 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 the, of a warehouse?

LEE: Uh, the, some of those, uh, bourbons on the lower levels are 48:00designated 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 49:00old 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: At 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. 51:00It's going to have the characteristics that good bourbon has. Gonna 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, it's got a good flavor to it, and it don't have a 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, 53:00your 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 54:00people 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 55:00followed. 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 Ferdie 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 58:00tell 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.

HAY: Got two minutes left.

TROLAND: Okay. Uh, why don't we stop then, and just put it--

[Pause in recording.]

TROLAND: This is tape two. Uh, my name is Tom Troland, and we are interviewing Elmer T. Lee, Master Distiller Emeritus at Buffalo Trace Distillery. 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 Distillery. Tell me something about the brands that were 59:00produced here at the distillery prior to the early eighties; prior to this explosion of uh, boutique brands.

LEE: Uh, Ancient Age is one of the, flagstaff--flagship brands that Schenley had for this plant. Uh, Echo Springs, Cream of Kentucky, uh--there were several brands that I can't recall right, minor brands, but they had, oh, eight or, 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 60:00segments?

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/Sorth--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: (laughs) I meant that for my taste the bourbons, the high-end bourbons now, uh, paralleled the tastes of those made prior to Prohibition. Uh, the--prior to Prohibition--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 62:00proof, 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 it 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 made then that wasn't up to what we'd 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, the, uh, process the way it's supposed to be. And, uh, Harlen has been able to modernize and 65:00put, 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 flav-, favor, in the last, certainly within the last ten years. Prior 66:00to that, uh, uh, bourbon wasn't one of the favored 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 67:00into 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, 'til 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 and 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, 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 70:00course--but I like a little soda with lime/lemon flavor--7-Up, Sprite, something like that--but, uh, I take, put out a, a shot--1 ounce--over ice cubes and a little bit of 7-Up or Sprite. That's the way I like it. A 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.

[End of interview.]

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