Classification: Straight Bourbon
Company: Sazerac Company Inc. / Early Times Distilling Company
Distillery: Brown-Forman Distillery
Release Date: Ongoing
Age: NAS (Aged at least 4 years per TTB regulations)
Mashbill: 79% Corn, 11% Rye, 10% Malted Barley
Color: Dark Copper
Price: $25 (1L only/750mL not offered) (2022)
Early Times was created by John Henry “Jack” Beam, son of David Beam, Jim Beam’s brother. Jack left his father’s distillery in 1860 at the age of 21. He built his own distillery near Bardstown, Kentucky and started distilling Early Times there. Jack later passed away in 1915 at the age of 75 and upon his passing the distillery ceased operations.
The Early Times brand and stock of aging barrels (though notably not the distillery), were eventually acquired by Owsley Brown, owner of Brown-Forman, in 1923. In 1945, Brown-Forman launched Early Times Bottled in Bond which sold so well it eventually became the most popular bourbon in America in 1953. When Brown-Forman constructed a new distillery located in Shively, Kentucky in 1955, the distillery was originally named after Early Times before it became Brown-Forman Distillery.
Unfortunately, during the difficult times endured by the industry in the 1970s and 1980s, the Early Times brand changed from bourbon to blended whiskey, leaving the Bottled in Bond label behind. Early Times “Old Style Kentucky Whisky” was born, which was a blend of straight bourbon and light whiskey.
According to the company website, DSP No. 354, where Early Times is made, is the longest continually operating distillery under the same ownership in Kentucky. The Early Times brand itself is one of the longest running labels in bourbon, now celebrating 160 years according to the company’s press release.
In 2020, the Early Times brand was purchased from Brown-Forman by Sazerac, Inc. in a purchase that also included Canadian Mist, Collingwood brands, and the Canadian Mist production assets. The acquisition included the brand’s existing stock, however in 2021 Sazerac announced that production would take place at their Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky, and that the original recipe and mashbill would continue to be used.
According to brand representative Amy Preske, Public Relations Manager for Buffalo Trace Distillery/Sazerac Company, “The Early Times Bottled-In-Bond currently on-shelf today is the remaining inventory from the acquisition. Barton 1792 Distillery has been distilling and aging Early Times since the acquisition using the same mashbill and proprietary yeast strain that our loyal fans love. The Early Times barrels produced at Barton 1792 Distillery will continue to age up until they meet the strict Early Times sensory requirements. The current label reflects TTB requirements and has to do with where the product was produced/warehoused (DSP-KY-354) and then where it was bottled (DSP-KY-12).”
Bright and fruity with peach, raspberry, and dried apricot opening up immediately. They’re punctuated by vanilla custard, toasted marshmallow, and a healthy dose of rye spice. The fruit notes are most prominent, and the aroma is more rich, but also less of a classic bourbon aroma than the 2020 version. The trade-off will please those who prefer a fruit-forward nose, but still satisfy those who gravitate towards a more classic bourbon profile.
Fruit remains prominent on the palate, with apricot and a general light citrus note upfront. More typical caramel and vanilla integrate with the fruit flavors, along with rye spice creating a creamy base. It drinks right at its 100 proof, and is straightforward in its delivery. Where the 2020 version offered a more robust savory side to complement the sweeter flavors, this version is slightly sweeter by comparison.
Rye spice joins bright fruit, and their sweet-spice combination sets the stage for the finish. Fairly straightforward and consistent with the rest of the sip, there aren’t any surprises here and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Fruit and spice linger then taper off nicely, making for a pleasant and enjoyable close.
When Sazerac purchased the Early Times brand in 2020, they purchased the existing whiskey stocks along with the brand. They also confirmed that when production moved to 1792 Distillery in 2021, the plan was to maintain the same mashbill. Presumably, the goal is to maintain a consistent flavor profile.
But at the same time, a new blender and production team comes with inevitable changes, even if existing stocks are still being used. And being bottled in bond presents additional challenges, as each bottle must contain whiskey distilled by the same distiller in the same distilling season; which means you can’t simply blend whiskey of a different distilling season (which equates to age) in order to adjust the resulting flavor profile, a common practice in the industry.
What results is a slightly different tasting bourbon than was produced just a few years ago, even if the stock hasn’t changed. It’s more fruit-forward compared to the more traditionally-inspired blend from 2020. While this does not equate to a better (or worse) bourbon, its flavor profile is a bit more unique as a result, delivering a sip that’s a bit brighter, and stands out more when the two are tasted side by side.
An important fact to note is Early Times Bottled in Bond is only released in 1 liter bottles, a full 33% more bourbon than what is found in the more standard 750mL packaging. Just a few dollars more than it was a few years ago, the price still equates to the equivalent of a 750mL bourbon that comes in under $20 (when adjusting for its 1 liter size and price point). As prices have risen significantly this past year, Early Times Bottled in Bond is a welcome reminder that you don’t need to spend a lot to get a quality bourbon. While it may not impress like some of the hotter regularly available bottles available for a few dollars more such as Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon ($25/750mL) or Buffalo Trace Bourbon ($30/750mL), it offers a quality pour at a really affordable price point, joining the ranks of other well-known, bargain bottled in bond bourbons such as Old Grand-Dad Bottled in Bond ($25/750mL), Old Tub Bottled in Bond Bourbon ($23/750mL), and Evan Williams Bottled in Bond ($15/750mL). In today’s market, Early Times Bottled in Bond is a fantastic deal, plain and simple.
Now two years since Sazerac acquired the Early Times brand, the bourbon’s flavor profile has changed a bit, but the quality and value proposition remain the same.
There is no shortage of new and expensive bourbons on the market. While a value-driven legacy brand may feel like it has little offer, the reality is anything but. With roots dating back to 1860, Early Times was the first brand acquired by Brown-Forman, and was surprisingly sold to Sazerac in 2020 soon after its 2017 re-launch. While the existing stock was part of the acquisition and the goal seems to be to keep the brand basically the same, the label and flavor profile have changed slightly compared to the previously reviewed 2020 version that was blended by Brown-Forman. More fruit-forward, and with that sweeter but also more unique, the overall quality is the same. Possibly one of bourbon’s best-kept secrets, Early Times remains a solid bourbon at a fantastic price point. I’m curious to taste this again when the distillate changes over to 1792 Barton Distillery, but until then it remains a strong buy recommendation as a versatile, value-focused bourbon.