RIP Elmer T. Lee, 1919-2013

I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to mention the passing of Buffalo Trace Master Distiller Emeritus Elmer T. Lee on July 16, 2013. He was the MD there through some of the darkest days of the American whiskey industry when consumption was plummeting and the structure of industry was changing rapidly. What’s now called Buffalo Trace was right in the middle of all of that but the distillery emerged from that era as a leader and an innovator. Elmer T. Lee was one of the people responsible for that. Up until his death he was still picking barrels that would go into the single barrel bourbon that bares his name (and is one of the best values in the single barrel bourbon category).

While the early  death of Truman Cox was shocking and tragic, the death of Elmer T. Lee at 93 years of age is an occasion for celebrating a full life well-lived. Here are a few links pertaining to Elmer, his life and work:

A copy of the letter sent from Sazerac president Mark Brown announcing Elmer’s death (Posted on Lew Bryson’s Seen Through a Glass blog): http://lewbryson.blogspot.com/2013/07/rip-elmer-t-lee.html

An old interview with Elmer in which he talks a bit about himself and the runs through the entire bourbon making process (38 minutes).

2008 interview of Elmer for the Buffalo Trace Oral History project (52 minutes)

http://www.nunncenter.org/buffalotrace/2010/08/31/elmer-t-lee/

He will be greatly missed but as long as the bourbon continues to flow his legacy will too.

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Interview and a visit to the Nik Metop Distillery

Madison Heights, Michigan- The sun trickled in through the dusty blinds in the window as the sweet auburn liquor trickled through the funnel into a fresh, clean bottle at the suburban Detroit headquarters of Nik Metop Distillers.

“We think of ourselves as pioneers,” Nik Metop said as he wiped off the edge of his funnel, “nobody else is doing what we’re doing. We are the only craft distiller in Southeast Michigan that bottles a full range of spirits. We are selling Traditional Bourbon, High Rye Boubon, Wheated Bourbon, Rye, Vatted Scotches, Gin, Vodka, you name it! As a nod to our Greek heritage we even have a vatted Ouzo. We’ve only been in business for six months but we’re already miles ahead of the competition.”

How have they done it? “We’d rather show you than tell you!” Nik said as he slapped me on the back and escorted me out to a large conversion van in the parking lot. His sister Nika hopped in the driver’s seat and we were on our way.

“The craft distiller’s best friend is the telephone,” Nik told me as Nika drove us to the source. “You’d be surprised how much whiskey there is out there. I just pick up the phone and call around to any place I can think of and then buy up as much as I can.”

The van pulled into the parking lot of a somewhat rundown strip mall just a mile or two away. As Nik and Nika exited the car, I started to as well, until Nik stopped me. “Sorry, you’ll have to stay in the van. We’d love to have you help us, but we’re contractually required to keep our sources secret.” I peeked out the window of the van, but all I could see of the building they went into was a sign in the window advertising lottery tickets. After a few minutes, the rear doors opened and Nik and another man started loading large cardboard boxes into the back of the van, to the sounds of glass clinking from inside the boxes.

When we got back to the distillery, Nik gave me the tour. “This is our still, isn’t it beautiful?” he said as he proudly pointed to a picture in a catalog. “We’re just doing what we’re doing now until our Ouzo ages. We’re using the money from the sales of our whiskeys to pay the rent and give ourselves a salary. That jar marked ‘Swear Jar’ in the corner over there is to pay for the still.”

“This is our aging and vatting area,” he said as he took me to a back room with four old bourbon barrels and Nika standing over a stainless steel stock pot with a large wooden spoon. “Nika is our Master Blender. When we source our whiskey we pour small batches into stainless steel containment and blend it to our specifications. How’s that blend coming, Nika?” “Good Nik,” she replied, “but it needs more Wild Turkey.” Nik noded and grabed a 1.75 liter bottle of 80 proof Wild Turkey from the floor. He poured it into the pot, and Nika stirred it a few times. She then dips a spoon into the pot, takes a sip, smiles and gives her brother a thumbs up. “Are you interested in any samples?” Nik asked me. “I’ll also pay you five dollars every time you say something positive about my distillery online.”

“After we blend it, we pour it into one of those barrels over there and let it mature for at least two hours. I’ve learned a lot from my mentors Jim Rutledge, Jimmy Russell, Jay Glaser, David Perkins, Kolin Brighton, Scott Bush, Julian Van Winkle IV, Elmer T. Lee, Drew Kulsveen, Sam Cecil, Earl Beam, Ezra Ripy, Jack Beam, James Crow, Evan Williams, Jakob Boehm, John Jameson, Julian Assange, Erik Larsen, Eric Holder and Billy Fightingcock. You can’t force the whiskey into some sort of arbitrary timetable. You pick an apple when it’s ripe, not after it’s been on the tree for a certain length of time. Why should whiskey be any different? But speaking of apples, Nika what are you doing?”

Nik ran over to the mixing area where Nika was pouring a bottle of Laird’s Applejack into the stockpot. Nika looked at the label and got a sheepish look on her face. “I’m sorry, Nik. I didn’t read the label.”

After the Applejack incident, Nik took me over to their bottling area. “Nika designed these labels herself. See?” He pointed to a pile of labels that read “Lewis Cass Straight Bourbon Whiskey”. “We better wrap it up,” Nik said. “I have an interview with Tom Fisher in an hour. Before you go, let me show you my favorite part of the labels.” He pointed to the bottom of the label where in big block letters was printed “PROUDLY MADE AND BOTTLED IN MICHIGAN”.

Good News!

Good news for micro-brew lovers!  Milking It brewery in Royal Oak, MI now has its products in finer party and grocery stores in Southeastern Michigan, in pint CANS, no less.  I’m a big fan of the Axl Pale Ale.  Pick up a six pack.  Yes, now.

Jim Beam Signature ?

Something weird is going on in Europe.  Straightbourbon.com’s lead Swede, Leif, discovered something odd on German ebay.  This.

According to friend-of-the-blog Ben Kickert’s google translation, the ebay page translates to something close to the following:

“Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Signature Six Grains Whiskey 1 liter with 44.5% vol in a distinctive leather bag. This limited bottling is 6 years old. The six different grains distilled bourbon is very soft and vollaromtisch. Caramel and vanilla accents dominate the taste until his velvety and warm long finish. It is the first bottling of a beginning series of Jim Beams, the short run the market will come in only.”

What’s weird is that nobody, not even those who make their living writing about bourbon (well, at least some of their living) has heard anything about this.  It claims to be made from six grains, which is bizarre.  Four-grain bourbons have been made from time to time, most infamously the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Four Grain (for a fun read consult this SB.com thread), but this is unprescendented.  The bottle seems to be genuine, but releasing a new expression overseas, apparently through duty-free shops, is highly unusual.

Speculation on the six grains (beyond the usual suspects of corn, barley, rye & wheat) has ranged from oats and millet to triticale and candy corn.  One possibility is that multiple varieties of corn (or something else) are being counted as seperate grains.  Woodstone Creek (a winery/distillery in Cincinnati) used two varieties of corn to make their bourbon, and claimed it as a 5 grain bourbon.

Anyway, a lot of heads are being scratched right now.  I’ll keep you posted.