Elmer T. Lee, bourbon icon, dead at 93

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Elmer T. Lee
Elmer T. Lee, 93, the iconic master distiller whose name graces one of the bourbons made at Buffalo Trace, died Tuesday after a brief illness.

He was a pioneer in making single-barrel bourbons, and brought his first -- Blanton's -- to market in 1984. He retired in 1985, but was convinced to return to work as brand ambassador and master distiller emeritus for Buffalo Trace.

"We have lost a wonderful friend today, and he will be missed terribly," said Mark Brown, president and CEO of Sazerac, parent company of Buffalo Trace.

"In the world of making really fine whiskey, the role of master distiller is pivotal, but Elmer's meaning to those he met, came to know, and worked with closely extended far beyond that of a master distiller," Brown said.

"Elmer defined, in the simplest terms, what it means to be a great American: hard working, self-made, courageous, honest, kind, humble and humorous."

Lee was born in 1919 on a tobacco farm near Peaks Mill, Franklin County, KY. During World War II he served as a radar bombardier on a B-29, flying missions against Japan through 1945. In 1946, he was honorably discharged and returned home to study engineering at the University of Kentucky, where he graduated with honors in 1949.

In September 1949, Lee began working in the engineering department of the George T. Stagg Distillery in Frankfort. By 1966, he became plant superintendent, then plant manager in 1969. In 1984, he introduced Blanton's, the world's first single-barrel bourbon.

Lee was inducted into the Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2001, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Whisky Advocate magazine in 2002, and a Lifetime Achievement Award and Hall of Fame induction from Whisky Magazine in 2012.

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