The bishop of bourbon

By PEGGY FUKUNAGA State Journal Staff Writer Published:

In Buffalo Trace Distillery's log clubhouse, there's a 1953 photograph of the 2 millionth barrel of bourbon stored in a mini-warehouse when the facility was known as Schenley Distillers.

The caption reads, "a shrine to Kentucky Bourbon."

Across the valley, there is cabin. It is the home of the president's office, Mark Brown. Next to the clubhouse are the massive distillery warehouses that rise like lonely gothic chapels. The mini-warehouse shown in photo is tucked behind the distillery. It holds the sacred barrel.

Close by, a spring-fed stream runs down this hill past "Thunder," a carved wooden memorial to the buffalo, and meanders next to the clubhouse, newly named for Elmer T. Lee, a retired master distiller who still consults at the distillery.

Lee muses that they named the clubhouse after him in lieu of giving him a gold watch. Friends and admirers will gather there at 4:30 p.m. today to celebrate Lee's Lifetime Achievement Award from the Malt Advocate magazine.

Lee has devoted more than 50 years to distilling and the perfection of bourbons. If Buffalo Trace is a hallowed ground and a shrine to Kentucky bourbon, Lee is its high priest.

Lee has heeded the call of the bourbon industry and his name is being preached far and wide. He retired in 1985 but still comes to the plant every Monday to select the barrels for his namesake bourbon, "Elmer T. Lee."

"It keeps me busy," he said in an interview with The State Journal. "It's healthy. I'm 84. I like meeting people that are interested in good bourbon."

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