I received a text this week from a friend that without preamble said, “Did Elmer T. Lee get worse?”
My gut reaction was, “Of course not! How dare you besmirch the name of the dearly departed father of modern Bourbon!?” After calming myself with a hefty dram I remembered that despite centuries of tradition whiskey making is a constantly evolving art and barrel aging is by no means an exact science. To add to that, there were claims of “cork taint” by members of the Reddit whiskey community in 2016. The popularity of Elmer T. Lee has also exploded in recent years so the odds are that it’s younger stock than previous years. By the end of the glass the question was less of an attack and more of a probability.
Son, we’re not hiring today.”
This could have remained a simple thought experiment but a recent trip to the Liquor Locker left me with a bottle of 2014 Elmer and the ability to do a little compare and contrast. But first a little context.
What exactly is Elmer T. Lee? Elmer T. Lee is both a Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon, and the deceased former Master Distiller of the distillery we now know as Buffalo Trace.
“Son, we’re not hiring today.” Is how Col. Albert B. Blanton first greeted Elmer in 1949, but at the instance of his friend at the distillery he showed up to work the next week anyway. Over the years Elmer grew from a maintenance engineer to the distilleries first Master Distiller. He officially “retired” in 1985 but not before releasing the world’s first Single Barrel Bourbon, Blanton’s, named after the man who didn’t hire him.
After Blanton’s became a hit the distillery honored its Master Distiller emeritus with his own namesake Single Barrel. Elmer was still heavily involved with the distillery and would come in every Tuesday to taste barrels and make selections for his namesake release.
Before Blanton’s, and Elmer, the concept of a “Single Barrel” Bourbon didn’t exist. Remember, barrel aging isn’t an exact science. Every barrel ages differently depending on where in the rickhouse it sits, the quality of the barrel, the temperature swings over the years, all of these factors contribute to each barrel being a unique specimen But the whole idea of a bottled whiskey is consistency so generally barrels are blended, or batched, together to recreate a specific flavor profile. For a Single Barrel all of the whiskey in the bottle comes from one single barrel and has to stand on its own individual merits. While there will always be some variation, it is a sign of the skill of the distillery to be able to produce quality single barrels that are still consistent.
Both Blanton’s and Elmer share the same DNA. They’re both Buffalo Trace Mashbill #2 which is slightly higher in rye content (about 15%) and are both technically co-owned and produced with Age International. They’re both single barrels and they’re both non-age statement Bourbon’s so we know they’re at least older than four years. But two things separate them from each other: aging and proof.
Drinking is such an individual experience. It’s can be a social activity but the act of tasting is something intrinsically personal.
Blanton’s is always aged in Warehouse H, which was commissioned by Blanton himself. It is a fully metal clad warehouse which allows for greater heat transfer and, supposedly, more rapid aging. Elmer has no such restrictions on what warehouse it must be aged in which theoretically allows for a larger variation in flavors.
Elmer is also bottled at 90 proof (45% ABV) where as Blanton’s is bottled at 93 Proof (46.5% ABV). While this difference seems small the alcohol is where the flavor is. A few extra proof points can make a world of difference and a whiskey can open up with just a few more drops of water. That isn’t to say that higher proof is always better, just like older doesn’t always mean better, it just means a different flavor profile. Interestingly, Elmer was said to drink his Bourbon at 60 Proof as he felt that was the point when he could taste all the flavor with out the alcohol getting in the way.
Now that all the intellectual foreplay is out of the way, how do they actually taste?
NOSE: Oak and Clove
PALETTE: Earthy, Dark Chocolate, Coffee, Tobacco
FINISH: Long, slightly damp and musty
NOSE: Oak, Stone fruit, Vanilla
PALETTE: Rye Spice, Stone Fruit, Tobacco, Coffee
FINISH: Light, Spicy
Surprisingly, the 2014 is livelier in the glass, with a bigger spice on the nose and a more rounded midpalette. However, the 2018 carries a darker earthiness, more of the tobacco I associate with Elmer’s and a longer finish. Yet they are both still Elmer. In fact, pouring the two together creates an almost uber-Elmer that is exactly what I expect Elmer to taste like all the time.
Drinking is such an individual experience. It’s can be a social activity but the act of tasting is something intrinsically personal. Where you are at, what time of the year, and how much effort you put into finding the bottle all effects how the spirit tastes. So, back to my friends original question. Did Elmer T. Lee get worse? I’d say no, but it is different. But then again, so am I.