April 4, 2013

Review: Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel - A Brief History of Bourbon

Louie Louie

When we left off in our story about whiskey, George Washington was stocking up on rye to warm his troops at Valley Forge in preparation for a long campaign against the British.  There was another part of this story, happening across the Atlantic, that would eventually lead to a lovely sauce called bourbon.

When you think of bourbon, you don't usually think about guys like Louie.  But you should.  Because bourbon was named after him.  Louie XVI was King of France from 1754 to 1793.  Yep, right at the same time GW and Paul Revere were lighting the lanterns and packing the muskets.  Louie turned out to be one of our greatest allies in the Revolutionary War.  No, he wasn't a huge American Idol fan, he just hated the British.  After all he'd just lost Louisiana and most of his West Indian colonies to Spain and England in the Seven Years' War.  He saw the American Revolution as a handy way to get some quick revenge.  He began secretly sending arms and supplies to Washington's army in 1776.  In 1778 he officially joined the fight by signing the Treaty of Alliance.  The rest is history.

Louie's family was The House of Bourbon.  After the revoluion, a huge swath of southwestern Virginia territories across both sides of the Ohio River was named Bourbon County in appreciation of Louie's help during the war.  Seven years later, in 1792, the State of Kentucky was formed, and Bourbon County split off from Virginia to become northeastern Kentucky.  That large region was later cut up into many smaller ones, and the original territory became known as "Old Bourbon".

Git Us S'more O' That Old Bourbon

The main trading point in the country at this time was New Orleans.  Barrels of whiskey came from all over the country to New Orleans.  The barrels being made in Bourbon County, Kentucky had "Old Bourbon" stamped on the side.  They also had another unique feature.  They spent weeks or months slowly drifting down the Ohio River sitting in charred oak barrels.  By the time they got to The Big Easy, they were warm and mellow and very drinkable.  People started asking for this whisky by name. First "Old Bourbon" and then just "Bourbon".

What Is Bourbon?

To be called "Bourbon", whiskey must fill the following criteria:
  • Made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn
  • Aged in new, charred-oak barrels
  • Distilled to no more than 160 proof (80%)
  • Entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5%)
  • Bottled at 80 proof or more (40%)

Founding Fathers

There are a number of major players in the bourbon story, and we plan to give them all their due in coming reviews.  Baptist preacher Elijah Craig is credited with inventing the charred oak barrel.  Evan Williams opened the first legal commercial distillery.  Jacob Beam invented sour mash.  Robert Samuel's secret family recipe penned in 1783 is the longest continually running operation, today known as Maker's Mark.  Then there are generations of descendants, folks like Baker Beam, Booker Noe, Major Benjamin Blanton, Julian "Pappy" van Winkle, Basil Hayden, and Thompson Willett.

Buffalo Trace

Today we're going to follow one such line of bourbon making, and it begins right there on the river with oak barrels of "Old Bourbon" cruising their way down to New Orleans.  In 1792 Commodore Richard Taylor builds Riverside House, a residence and later a warehouse for bourbon as it is loaded onto riverboats.  The paths they use to wheel the barrels down to the river were carved by buffalo herds, aka the Buffalo Trace.

Three generations later, Colonel E.H. Taylor founds the first commercial distillery at the Riverside House facility.  Ten years later Colonel Taylor sells the distillery to George T. Stagg.  Taylor stays along as the manager.  Around the turn of the century, Albert Blanton (later to become Colonel Blanton) joins the distillery at age 16 as an office boy.  By the start of prohibition, he is president of the distillery.  In 1949, Elmer T. Lee joins the distillery.

The Line

If these names sound familiar, it's because they all bear the labels of Buffalo Trace's
top-shelf single barrel bourbons.  Blanton's is one of our favorite bourbons that you can reliably find in bars.  They also make a range of Blanton's including a 'gold' 'silver' and 'barrel proof' which are getting more difficult to find.  Colonel E.H. Taylor is a top-shelf bottling of both bourbon and rye (review pending).  George T. Stagg was a powerhouse cask-strength bourbon that was so popular last year it's nearly impossible to find today.

Elmer T. Lee is still alive at 91 years old and is the man responsible for bringing single barrel bourbon into the market.  He created and launched most of the above products.  As a fitting tribute, Buffalo Trace launched a sweet, hand-picked single barrel line with Elmer's namesake.

Well enough history, how's it taste?

Tasting Notes

Nose:  Walnuts and pecans.  Like a top-shelf jar of mixed nuts.  Floral overtones here like lilacs and tulips.  Heavy leather, maybe some wood polish / lemon Pledge type aroma.  A nice balance of spirit, wood, and spice.

Body:  In an Islay scotch, we look for the balance of burn and smoke.  If it's well put-together, you know you're tasting a strong whisky, but the smoke takes away all the burn, so that you are left with the flavor of the booze without the fire in your throat.  Elmer does the same thing with sweetness.  You know you're tasting a strong bourbon, but the sweet molasses, honey, and lemon candy takes all the burn away.  The balance is awesome.

Finish:  All the elements come together.  A very nice warmth, some remnants of honey and citrus on the palate.  Some more of the lilacs around the corner of the mouth.

The Review

This isn't what we'd think of as a sophisticated whiskey.  There aren't layers upon layers of flavors revealing themselves.  There aren't complex elements that only come out after it opens up for ten minutes and you're on your second or third taste.  On the other hand we could absolutely drink Elmer's Single Barrel all day (and all night!).  It's a simple, delicious, and straightforward bourbon.  Elmer seems to know what he likes - a sweet, smooth, tasty, well-balanced whiskey that will make a lot of friends.  Another thing to keep in mind: this bottle cost $30.99 at Astor!  It's a tremendous value, and at that price earns a SmokyBeast "A-".  You just can't go wrong with this bourbon, for veteran beastmasters and first time whiskey drinkers alike.   It was a great place to start our historic journey into bourbon.  Stay tuned for more Kentucky heros coming soon!  /SmokyBeast


  1. You should read Mike Veach's new book on bourbon history.

    But be warned if you do, you might find a lot in your post you want to revise. His theories about the whys and whens work better than the bunch of old marketing myths you are recounting ;)

  2. This is awesome, never knew who bourbon was named after. Makes perfect sense! I bought a bottle and it's outstanding, great recommendation! (saving up for Michter's 12-year after reading that review as well!)