Interview with Elmer T. Lee, October 30, 2008

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries (Exhibit)

 

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00:00:03 - Introduction / background information

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Partial Transcript: My name is Tom Troland, and we're interviewing now Elmer T. Lee, Master Distiller Emeritus of Buffalo Trace Distillery.

Segment Synopsis: Troland, the interviewer, introduces Elmer T. Lee, the interviewee. Lee gives some background information about himself, including his military service during World War II, his education at the University of Kentucky, and his early associations with Buffalo Trace Distillery.

Keywords: Army Air Corps; B-29; Boeing B-29 Superfortress; Engineering; Engineering degrees; Military service; Radar bombardiers; Shoe companies; Spring break; Summer vacations; Veterans

Subjects: Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Frankfort (Ky.).; Guam.; Military service, Voluntary.; United States. Army.; University of Kentucky.; World War, 1939-1945

GPS: Frankfort (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 38.20091, -84.87328
00:02:49 - Growing up in Frankfort, Kentucky / parents

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Partial Transcript: Tell me a little bit about, uh, growing up in Frankfort. What was it like in those times?

Segment Synopsis: Lee describes his childhood in Frankfort, Kentucky and what it was like during the Great Depression. He also discusses his parents. Specifically, he talks about his father's death, his mother's remarriage and the influence that both of these events had on him.

Keywords: Baseball; Bicycles; Childhood; Children; Deaths; Discipline; Fathers; Frankfort High School; Friends; Great Depression; Hiking; Lucian Penn; Mothers; Parents; Remarriages; Respect; Rural life; Softball; Southern Hotel; Swimming; Typhoid fever; Waitresses

Subjects: Bald Knob (Franklin County, Ky.).; Christianity.; Depressions--1929.; Frankfort, (Ky.).; Peaks Mill (Ky.).; Tobacco farmers.; Waitresses.

GPS: Frankfort (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 38.20091, -84.87328
00:07:50 - Career options in college and beyond

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Partial Transcript: 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?

Segment Synopsis: Lee discusses the interest that he had in engineering and veterinary science when he was in high school and early college. He shares why he chose engineering and touches on how he came to work at Buffalo Trace.

Keywords: Animals; Engineering; Graduation; Maintenance engineers; Plant engineers; Spring break; Summer breaks; Wages; Working

Subjects: Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Engineers.; Horses.; University of Kentucky.; Veterinarians.; Whiskey industry.

00:11:14 - Early days of working at Buffalo Trace Distillery

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Partial Transcript: In those early days, what, what might have been a typical day for you at work here at the distillery?

Segment Synopsis: Lee shares some of his early experiences of working at Buffalo Trace. This includes his hopes for promotion at that time and some of the people who influenced him.

Keywords: Al Geiser; Bourbon; Bourbon production; Co-workers; Engineers; Future plans; Leonard Riddle; Maintenance; Management training programs; Master distillers; Orville Schupp; People; Plant managers; Plant superintendents; Purdue; Ronnie Eddins; Supervising; Supervisors; Work

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey; Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Distilleries.; Whiskey industry--Kentucky.; Whiskey industry.; Whiskey.

GPS: Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 38.21669, -84.87068
00:16:36 - A job interview with Albert B. Blanton / Jimmy Johnson / African Americans at Buffalo Trace

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Partial Transcript: Early in your career here at the distillery, the distillery was under the operation, as I understand it, of Albert B. Blanton.

Segment Synopsis: Lee talks about meeting Albert Blanton and the job interview that he had with him, in which he was told that they weren't hiring. He shares how he came to have a job at Buffalo Trace despite this. He also talks about Jimmy Johnson, who is another interviewee for this project, and how African Americans at the distillery were treated before and after integration.

Keywords: "Crew leaders"; Albert B. Blanton; Distillers; Engineers; Equal Opportunity Act; Foremen; Gardening; Houses; Janitors; Jimmy Johnson; Job interviews; Maintenance engineers; Orville Schupp; Respect; Schenley Distillers Inc.; Segregation; Unions

Subjects: African Americans in the whiskey industry; African Americans.; Bourbon whiskey; Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Distilleries.; Segregation.

GPS: Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 38.21669, -84.87068
00:23:17 - Responsibilities as plant superintendent and plant manager / Schenley ownership of the plant

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Partial Transcript: Tell me a little bit about, uh, sort of your mid-career here.

Segment Synopsis: Lee discusses the responsibilities that he had as plant superintendent, and later plant manager. He also talks about Schenley, which was the company that owned Buffalo Trace at that time.

Keywords: Al Geiser; Distillers; Engineers; Management training; New York; Owensboro (Ky.); Plant managers; Plant superintendents; Production headquarters; Responsibilities; Schenley Distillers Inc.; Steam whistles; Whistles

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey; Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Cincinnati (Ohio).; Distilleries.; Whiskey.

GPS: Cincinnati (Ohio)
Map Coordinates: 39.10312, -84.51202
00:29:44 - Master distiller at Buffalo Trace

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Partial Transcript: How did the position of master distiller, uh, come into existence?

Segment Synopsis: Lee discusses his being given the title of master distiller, the reasons he was given that title, and the added public relations responsibilities that it required.

Keywords: Advertising; Bardstown (Ky.); Booker Noe (Frederick Booker Noe II); Bourbon; Distillers; Distributors; Jimmy Russell; Marketing; Plant managers; Publicity; Responsibilities; Schenley Distillers Inc.; Traveling; Wild Turkey Distillery

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey; Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Whiskey industry--Kentucky.; Whiskey industry.

GPS: Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 38.21669,-84.87068
00:33:38 - Buffalo Trace's decline in the 1980s

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Partial Transcript: What, uh, what was the organization to whom the distillery was sold in 1982?

Segment Synopsis: Lee talks about the decline of Buffalo Trace Distillery in the 1980s, giving several reasons for why this occurred. He also briefly discusses the Blanton's brand of single barrel bourbon, which came out during that time.

Keywords: Advertising; Blanton's Single Barrel bourbon whiskey; Bob Baranaskas; Bourbon; Ferdie Falk; Maintenance; Management; Money; Sales; Sazerac Company; Schenley Distillers Inc.; Scotch whiskey; Single barrel bourbons

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey; Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Cincinnati (Ohio).; Mothers Against Drunk Driving (Organization).; Whiskey industry--Kentucky.; Whiskey industry.; Whiskey.

00:38:46 - The development of the Blanton's brand and other small batch bourbons

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Partial Transcript: Tell me a little bit about the development of the Blanton's brand.

Segment Synopsis: Lee discusses his role in the development of the Blanton's brand of single barrel bourbon in the 1980s. He also talks about the development of the Rock Hill and Hancock's brands, and his own brand, Elmer T. Lee.

Keywords: Blanton's Single Barrel bourbon whiskey; Bob Baranaskas; Elmer T. Lee (bourbon); Hancock's President's Reserve Bourbon Whiskey; Premium bourbon; Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel bourbon whiskey; Single barrel bourbons; Small batch bourbons; Warehouse H; Warehouse I; Warehouse K

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey; Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Whiskey--Kentucky.; Whiskey.

00:43:32 - Aging different types of bourbon

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Partial Transcript: Why do the different warehouses age the bourbon in a different way?

Segment Synopsis: Lee talks about how and where bourbon is aged, and how it affects its taste. He discusses the length of time that it is aged and gives his opinions on the optimal amount of time for aging it.

Keywords: Aging; Aging bourbon; Barrels; Blanton's Single Barrel bourbon whiskey; Buffalo Trace bourbon; Hancock's President's Reserve bourbon whiskey; Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year bourbon whiskey; Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel bourbon whiskey; Single barrel bourbons; Small batch bourbons; Tannic acid; Taste testing; Taste testing panels; Temperature; Temperature changes; Warehouses

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey; Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Distilleries.; Whiskey--Kentucky.; Whiskey.

00:50:40 - Elmer T. Lee brand bourbon

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Partial Transcript: Tell me a little bit more about the Elmer T. Lee brand.

Segment Synopsis: Lee discusses his namesake brand of bourbon, how it is selected, and what it tastes like.

Keywords: Aftertaste; Barrels; Elmer T. Lee (bourbon); Flavor; Selection; Taste; Taste testing; Vanilla; Warehouse C; Warehouses

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey; Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Whiskey.

00:55:55 - Barrel-strength bourbons / chill filtration

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Partial Transcript: What are your thoughts about barrel-strength bourbons?

Segment Synopsis: Lee gives his opinions on barrel-strength bourbons. He also talks about the use of chill filtration and the effect that it has on bourbon's taste and color.

Keywords: Alcohol proof; Barrel-strength bourbons; Booker Noe (Frederick Booker Noe II); Buffalo Trace Antique Collection; Charcoal filtration; Chill filtration; Dilution; Jim Beam (Brand); Jim Beam bourbon whiskey; Wild Turkey Distillery

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey; Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Whiskey--Kentucky.; Whiskey.

00:58:38 - Ancient Age and other older brands at Buffalo Trace

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Partial Transcript: This is tape two. Uh, my name is Tom Troland, and we are interviewing Elmer T. Lee, Master Distiller Emeritus at Buffalo Trace Distillery.

Segment Synopsis: Lee discusses some of the Buffalo Trace brands from before the establishment of "boutique" brands in the 1980s.

Keywords: Ancient Age bourbon whiskey; Arkansas; Boutique brands; California; Cream of Kentucky; Echo Springs; Florida; North Carolina; South Carolina; Texas; Whiskey brands; brands

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey; Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Whiskey--Kentucky.; Whiskey.

01:01:04 - Comparison of pre-Prohibition and modern day bourbons / changes in the bourbon industry

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Partial Transcript: Let me read a quotation from you from a book recently published.

Segment Synopsis: Lee compares the taste of bourbons made before Prohibition to the high quality ones made today. He also mentions some of the changes in the bourbon industry over the years.

Keywords: Bottling; Changes; Computers; Equipment; High end bourbons; Italy; Jim Murray; Mark Brown; Production; Proof; Quality; Recipes; Standards; Taste testing; Updates; Warehouses; Whiskey making

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey; Distillation.; Prohibition.; Whiskey industry--Kentucky.; Whiskey.

01:05:43 - Public perceptions of bourbon / personal preferences for drinking bourbon

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Partial Transcript: What about changes in public perception of bourbon over the time that you have been in the industry?

Segment Synopsis: Lee discusses some of the changes in the public perception of bourbon over the years. He also shares the way he prefers to drink his bourbon. The interview is concluded.

Keywords: 7-Up; Alcohol; Bourbon recipes; Changes; Coca-Cola; Drinking; Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel bourbon whiskey; Managers; Public opinion; Rum; Scotch; Sprite; Tequila

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey; Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Consumers.; Kentucky.; Whiskey--Kentucky.; Whiskey.