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  1. #1
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    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?

  2. #2
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    Re: Master Distillers

    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?
    /\../\

    "I've had eighteen straight whiskies, I think that's the record . . ." - Dylan Thomas

  3. #3
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    Re: Master Distillers

    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.

    Roger
    Last edited by Rughi; 10-11-2008 at 12:58.

  4. #4
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    Re: Master Distillers

    Quote Originally Posted by Rughi View Post

    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."
    ovh

  5. #5
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    Re: Master Distillers

    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.

    Roger

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    Re: Master Distillers

    Check out this link, he was at both and eventually ended up at Frankfort

    http://www.buffalotrace.com/history_GGayheart_m.asp
    ovh

  7. #7
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    Re: Master Distillers

    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.

  8. #8
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    Re: Master Distillers

    BT's bios 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.

    Roger

  9. #9
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    Re: Master Distillers

    Chuck's thoughts are to the point on this.

  10. #10
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    Re: Master Distillers

    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?

 

 

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