Elmer T. Lee Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Single Barrel Sour Mash
90 Proof, Ancient Age Distilling
This is a strange bourbon. From the onset the name and packaging raise expectations. Lee is Master Distiller Emeritus at Buffalo Trace, where he has worked with for over 50 years (he turned 90 last year). Lee oversaw the production and quality of the namesake bourbon as well as labels like Blanton’s, George T. Stagg and the bottling that bears his own name. With that kind of unmatched expertise, you’d expect something more profound from the Elmer T. Lee. Or at least something more interesting.
This bourbon is neither fish nor foul. It hints at a kind of lighter, heathery style, like the Evan Williams vintage bourbons of the 1990’s that might appeal to single malt Scotch drinkers, but confuses this end of the scale with odd flavors of cream soda and cola.
It also falls short of robust Kentucky single barrel bourbon, even though that’s what it’s marketed as. It feints lush textures and sweetness but collapses on the finish. There are spice and ginger notes mixed with something like earth and peat, but these lack concentration and cohesion, and what mostly comes across is wood.
Perhaps this bottle came from an unrepresentative batch, but this is a bourbon that has no home and is unlikely to attract a following. I’ll be revisiting another bottle soon because I don’t believe that deep down this is really the whiskey that Elmer Lee wants to be known by.
The Elmer T. Lee is another bourbon that was vastly under-appreciated at the time of this review in 2010. I’d purchased several bottles and always came away less than impressed. Then the bourbon boom happened, and for reasons not fully understood the ETL became an object of desire and disappeared from shelves completely.
About two or three years ago ago in the spring one of my local stores got their annual allotment (maybe a case) and I managed to secure a couple of bottles. My impression of the ETL was quite different–it was excellent, full and round with depth and definition. I enjoyed those bottles quite a lot and started to seek it out, but I’ve only seen it once or twice in stores since (in one, the price was $125 where it used to cost around $35).
I saved a few pours out of the last bottle and put it away and basically forgot about it. A few months ago I finally knocked back the last tastes over a few nights, and I couldn’t believe it was the same bourbon. It was light, lifeless and flabby, completely underwhelming, no different than my first impressions from years before.
So I don’t know what to make of the Elmer T. Lee. Obviously there’s tremendous bottle and barrel variation. It can be great, and it can be flat. It’s better than a 3 but also probably not the 7 I would have given it had I drank it all at once instead of hoarding 1/4 bottle. I’ll choose to remember the good.