Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Review of Elmer T. Lee - A Vertical Blind Tasting for the Ages

Like most Kentucky transplants, I began my affair with bourbon with the likes of Makers Mark and Woodford Reserve.  I was fortunate that I quickly befriended other lovers of the brown water and let me in on the industry secrets.  In the early 2000s, when I set down roots in this great state, it was not at all uncommon to find shelves littered with cherished bottles like Pappy, AAA, Antique Collection (all of them – even the Weller 19) and all the age-stamped favorites that are now only found on the secondary market.  I count my lucky stars that I was introduced to bourbon back then.  The passion of Kentuckians about their native spirit led me to roam the aisles of Liquor Barn just to read the labels and understand their stories.  I was fortunate to rub shoulders with historic master distillers and tour distilleries before they were mega-complexes.  (one time I went on a self-guided tour of Buffalo Trace!)

Times have changed and the availability of these gems are fewer and farther between.  So has the development and production of these bourbons.  The demand has forced a number of producers to remove the age stamp on their bottles.  Though they tell us that the quality and the contents are not changing, I think we all feel differently.  

My dad, a fellow bourbon enthusiast (and soon-to-be Kentucky transplant) was along for the ride when I received my bourbon education.  He led the way and helped develop my palate for the spirit.  We shared many nights going over tasting notes and hints of this-or-that.  Fortunately, my dad is a collector.  I have benefited from his well-stocked and procured whiskey collection.  Because of this, I am able to write about some older bottlings that are now just overpriced offerings on the black market. 
With all of this in mind, I wanted to do a retrospective (vertical tasting?) of how certain lines have changed over the years.  Impacts of the bourbon boom have changed the way we taste this liquid gold and I wanted to put my thoughts to paper.  Today, we discuss Elmer T Lee and the variation over the years.  

We all know there are no finite definitions for “small batch” or “single barrel” in this industry.  For all we know, they mean the same thing.  I like to think that I have enjoyed enough of ETL to know that their definition is truly “single”.  Although always delicious, there is variation in the flavor profile from bottle to bottle.  We all know the Elmer himself selected these bottles once he felt they were ready for the public and then we were able to taste perfection.  Since his passing in July of 2013, this all changed.  Although we are not exactly sure how, we can certainly describe how his namesake spirit drinks.  

For this tasting, I sent out a message to a number of my bourbon collecting friends and we were able to scrape together a number of different eras of ETL.  We were not lucky enough to have a bottle of the old wax sealed gold bottles but we were able to collect 2011, 2013, 2014 and the black label bottle commemorating the life of this bourbon icon.  We blind tasted them and among the 5 of us, we shot out our thoughts and eventually ranked them at the end of the tasting.  


Nose – Banana with traditional aromas of oak, brown sugar and caramel
Palate – Astringent flavors of citrus oil with a bit of metallic influence.  It was not easy to tell that this was aged bourbon as we could not really taste the influences of the 6-8 years the juice spent in oak.  Flavors were balanced.  Nothing truly overtook the other flavors.  We got flavors of stone fruits such as nectarine and unripe peach without significant sweetness.  Finish was brief but definitely asked you to take another sip.


Nose – Wet oak.  Again traditional aromas.
Palate – Flat.  Oddly sweet.  No complexity.  The palate was short with very little notes.  It was hardly possible to identify this as an ETL bottling.  The juice seemed a bit watered down with little memorable features.  There was but a small bitter finish to speak of.  


Nose – Great amounts of citrus – orange peel along with lemon zest.  Someone described it as “dusty old wood brightened by fruit”. 
Palate – This is truly the epitome of delicious and classic ETL.  The palate expressed beautiful refined flavor of cocoa, toffee, maple and had been perfectly married to the barrel for just the right amount of flavor and balance.  The finish, although brief, reminded you of the first time you had an epic whiskey and couldn’t wait to try another.  

Commemorative Black Label Bottle (2013)

Nose – Lots of freeze dried red berry.  Hints of strawberry but dominated by raspberry and traditional caramel and maple.
Palate – The soft and sophisticated start gave way to an explosion of flavors of soft baked spices, apples, caramel and even a bit if baked plum.  The 93 proof bourbon was dominated by memories of the best apple pie you ever had.  There was a beautiful soft finish with a nice spicy refinement to complete the tasting.  

In the end, we voted on our favorites before revealing which glass was which.  All of us agreed that the black label was far superior to the rest.  Surprisingly, second place was the 2014 followed by the 2011.  Rounding out the group was the 2013.  

Going into this tasting, I honestly expected to find a massive difference in bottles picked before Mr. Lee’s passing and those of today’s era.  There was s significant drop off of the 2013 edition that we drank but that was more than made up for with the 2014.  In short, this bottle is still worth the roughly $35 retail price on the shelf – if you even see it any longer.  It is beautiful, refined and has a great story behind it.