Part of the fun of turning 51 (as I did this month) is learning it’s not so bad to admit one’s ignorance. Age teaches us it’s wise to accept that no one knows everything, so why not just laugh about and dig into that which we have to yet to learn?
Many years ago, before bourbon became my favorite spirit, I heard the name Elmer T. Lee tossed about in spirits discussions. Back then, the only Elmer I could think of off the top of my head was the cartoon buffoon, Elmer Fudd. And I have to admit that, as a Kentuckian, Elmer has a distinct hillbilly ring to it, so I let loose the notion of wanting to try it anytime soon.
But much as Elmer Fudd constantly pestered Bugs Bunny, this Elmer kept working its way into conversations I had with serious bourbon drinkers. And not until a neighbor—who I discovered was a closet whiskey collector—told me that he had five cases of Elmer T. Lee in his basement did I become truly curious. Bargain buyers routinely keep a case of rot gut stashed in their basements for convenience sake, but for this man, also a collector of prized and antique glass sculpture, to have five cases of what then was $35 a bottle whiskey, meant something.
I tried it, but didn’t like it.
I loved it.
And as my neighbor poured me more, I kicked myself for assuming Mr. Lee was the marketing moniker for a brand of “hick likker,” not the legendary master distiller at Buffalo Trace Distillery, and the creator of Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon.
On my desk as I write this is a 2015 release of his namesake bourbon, a 90-proof sour mash beauty that, even at for the $43 I paid for it (tax included and purchased in Kentucky), tastes underpriced compared to its competition. (Note to Buffalo Trace: Don’t take that remark as a request to raise the price. Just wanted to make that clear.)
Its medium body makes it highly drinkable even for bourbon lovers fond of 80-proofers. Even its high-rye mash bill delivers only gentle heat when sipped straight. It’s so enjoyable neat that I’m loathe to experiment with it in a cocktail.
Some particulars: The nose is floral, yeasty, fragrant and bready. Mash notes are prominent and dried corn is always evident. Hang with it a spell and you’ll even find cocoa lurking in the background. It’s Eau de Rickhouse in a bottle.
Tasting it reveals all the basics of toasted oak, caramel, vanilla, fruity rye and sour mash, followed by bonus licks of pipe tobacco, yeast, fruit, even crème caramel. It treads gingerly on the palate, delicately as a Cotillion instructor. The finish delivers a bit more oak and then disappears without a trace down the gullet. It just drinks cleanly, bereft of a warming burn—which I do like in many cases.
I’ve got a fairly broad bourbon collection at home, and much as I wanted to find obvious similarities between those and “ETL,” I couldn’t. This whiskey is its own unique creation, one I bet I could find easily in a blind taste test. And were it not a tad expensive for a daily drinker, I’d select it as my regular grog.
I give Elmer T. Lee Bourbon an score of 88. You can pick up a bottle of it at a range of online retailers for an average price of over $65.
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Steve Coomes is an award-winning journalist and book author specializing in whiskey and food. In his 30-year career, he has edited and written for national trade and consumer publications including USA Today, Southern Living, Delta Sky Magazine, Nation’s Restaurant News, Pizza Today, Restaurant Business, Bourbon + and American Whiskey magazine....