Mr. Elmer T. Lee

Kentucky bourbon legend Elmer T. Lee, the man behind the single-barrel bourbon that sparked the industry's revival, died Tuesday at age 93.

Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort said that Mr. Lee died after a short illness.

"We have lost a wonderful friend today, and he will be missed terribly," said Mark Brown, president and CEO of Sazerac, parent company of Buffalo Trace.

Officially retired since 1985, Mr. Lee continued to visit the distillery every Tuesday to taste potential bourbons for his own Elmer T. Lee single-barrel label and to sign bottles and memorabilia for his legion of fans.

"In the world of making really fine whiskey, the role of master distiller is pivotal, but Elmer's meaning to those he met, came to know, and worked with closely extended far beyond that of a master distiller," Brown said. "Elmer defined, in the simplest terms, what it means to be a great American: hard working, self-made, courageous, honest, kind, humble and humorous."

Born in 1919 on a tobacco farm near Peaks Mill in Franklin County, Mr. Lee graduated from high school in 1936 and worked for Jarman Shoe Co. until December 1941. After World War II began, he served as a radar bombardier on a B-29, flying missions against Japan through 1945.

In 1946, he was honorably discharged and returned home to study engineering at the University of Kentucky, where he graduated with honors in 1949.

In September 1949, Mr. Lee began working in the engineering department of the George T. Stagg Distillery in Frankfort. By 1966, he became plant superintendent, and then plant manager in 1969.

But in 1984, he made his greatest contribution to bourbon: Mr. Lee introduce Blanton's, the world's first single-barrel bourbon.

It became a hit, first in Japan and then elsewhere, and the bourbon industry began reinventing itself with premium spirits, following in Mr. Lee's footsteps.

Mr. Lee retired in 1985 and became an ambassador for Buffalo Trace. A year later, he was honored with his own eponymous single-barrel label.

"Elmer was always ready to offer advice and was a wealth of information that many of us relied on, myself included," Brown said. Current Buffalo Trace master distiller "Harlen Wheatley would inquire with Elmer when stuck on a mechanical problem, and any historical questions about the distillery always went to Elmer, who, with his razor-sharp memory, could invariably answer. To all of us, Elmer was a friend, a mentor and a trusted adviser."

Mr. Lee was inducted into the Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2001; he was awarded a lifetime achievement Award from Whisky Advocate in 2002 and a lifetime achievement award and Hall of Fame induction from Whisky Magazine in 2012.

Services for Mr. Lee were pending.

Published in Lexington Herald-Leader on July 17, 2013