View Full Version : Master Distillers
Last night I was thinking about how many great bourbons Buffalo Trace puts out (at least 13 labels depending on how you count them). I was curious how many Master Distillers are behind those? I know Harlen Wheatley is over BT and Julian VanWinkle oversee his namesake label. Are there any other Master Distillers overseeing things at Buffalo Trace?
With only a limited quantity of active bourbon distilleries, how many people can claim the title of acting Master Distiller?
I don't know how many there are but there is also Elmer T Lee, he's a master distiller. Is Julian Van Winkle really a distiller?
As far as I know, it's fairly recently that the master distiller became the spokesman of distilleries. Many of the biggest names bourbon that we could rattle off weren't distillers, but plant managers, owners, marketers, etc. We enthusiasts seem to credit the guys running the still to a degree that we tend to assume that anyone who was important must have been a distiller.
I had a discussion with Parker Beam once, who stressed that the job of the master distiller was to keep up the quality of the white dog every day they ran the stills. Similarly, I've heard stories that Harlan Wheatley's obsession was to keep the distillation on pace with his calendar for every day before the river got too warm to distill (BT uses river water for cooling). Once the whiskey leaves the stillhouse and goes into a barrel, it's the warehouse manager's turn. Master Distillers are the guys who keep the juice flowing.
Gary Gayheart and Harlan Wheatley have been AA/BT master distillers, but was Elmer T Lee? He nows has emeritus status, but my understanding is that he made his mark on the industry (Blanton's, his eponymous bottling, etc.) as the distillery manager (plant manager? I'm not sure of the exact title). I don't think a Van Winkle has been a distiller, nor Fred Noe (although I think he's been conferred that title recently) or EH Taylor. All these men have played major roles in bourbon, but not all are/were master distillers.
Gary Gayheart and Harlan Wheatley have been AA/BT master distillers, but was Elmer T Lee? He nows has emeritus status, but my understanding is that he made his mark on the industry (Blanton's, his eponymous bottling, etc.) as the distillery manager (plant manager? I'm not sure of the exact title).
The quote below I got from SB.com/articles
"Elmer T Lee hired in at Ancient Age in 1949. His career there included 15 years as plant manager and then several years as a supervisor and plant manager before he became master distiller in the late 1960's."
Interesting, Oscar - I'd always wondered about that.
But what was Gary Gayheart doing at that time? Was he at other distilleries (Bernheim?) off and on between the '60s and '80s? I seem to remember discussion that he had distilled COK at Bernheim, AA, or both.
Check out this link, he was at both and eventually ended up at Frankfort
It's impossible to truly operate a distillery and simultaneously spend considerable amounts of time away from it, which is why the role of Master Distiller has had to evolve. What the term means varies by company and always has. The term itself is of fairly recent coinage and has more to do with the ambassador role than it does with the running-the-distillery role. "Distiller," without the modifier, used to be good enough.
BT's bios (http://www.buffalotrace.com/main.asp?page=people) perplex me on this story, as the bio of Al Geiser states that he was "Master Distiller reporting to Col. Albert B. Blanton" starting in 1945 and "continued until his retirement in 1972, working for both C. Orville Schupp and Elmer T. Lee."
Well, if one source (the one Oscar found somewhere on sb.com) says Elmer T Lee became Master Distiller in the late '60s, but BT itself says that Elmer was the Master Distiller's superior in the years leading up to 1972, did Elmer then take on extra duties or a demotion to take on Geiser's job?
It's perplexing. One of the fun things of this hobby is that more research often yields interesting results. More research, more twists and turns.
Chuck's thoughts are to the point on this.
Apart from the specifics of the distinction "Master Distiller," I am curious who is making the decisions about the whiskies at BT. Is Harlen (or someone else) in charge of the flavor profile for all the BT labels?
Every distillery has a tasting panel. Jack Daniel's probably has the biggest at something like 45 people, but the Master Distiller is typically the final decision-maker in that regard. In the case of the Van Winkle products, Julian would have the final say rather than Harlen. Supposedly, Elmer still has the final say on his namesake product. There may be some other exceptions, but it is Harlen for the most part.
I just got back from a BT tour. I asked my tour guide about this and here is what he said.
For the most part Harlen is the guy. Elmer T. Lee does still pick out his namesake barrels and Julian picks barrels for VanWinkle, but he made it sound like Julian's role was not absolute.
...Julian picks barrels for VanWinkle, but he made it sound like Julian's role was not absolute.
Harlen may limit the inventory from which Julian may choose. I doubt Julian has the run of the place. For that matter, he probably does the same thing with Elmer and anybody else who is making selections.
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