”To have great poets, there must be great audiences” – Walt Whitman
The history of the Early Times brand, and of this particular Bottled-in-Bond expression, is considerably impressive. The brand was launched in 1860 by bourbon royalty: John Henry “Jack” Beam, the paternal uncle of Jim Beam. From that time until Jack’s death in 1915 the brand was successful. Seven years after his passing, in 1923, the associated intellectual property and aging barrels were purchased by Owsley Brown, owner of Brown-Forman, to sell as “medicinal whiskey” during Prohibition. Soon Brown-Forman went from simply keeping the brand afloat to making it a national powerhouse.
From 1945 to the 1950s there was, without a doubt, a great audience for the Early Times brand. In fact, in 1953 the company was embroiled in a dispute with Old Stagg over a simple but sought-after claim: the right to be called “America’s largest selling Kentucky bourbon”. The dispute had to be settled by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division based on internal sales numbers provided by both companies and was ultimately resolved in favor of Early Times. However, by 1983 Early Times Bottled-in-Bond was discontinued and replaced by a less beloved blended whiskey as a cost-cutting measure during the industry’s infamous economic downturn of the 70s and 80s.
Fast forward to 2017: with those financial woes far behind them, and having found an enthusiastic audience eager to experience the lore of forgotten brands, Brown-Forman revived the bottled-in-bond version of Early Times to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its original bonded bourbon recipe. Initially meant to be a limited edition expression, it was an instant hit and soon became a regular release.
Since 2017, Early Times Bottled-in-Bond has spawned a score of adoring fans who consider it one of the best values in the world of bourbon. The two factors most frequently cited are its supposed “classic bourbon” flavor profile and its affordable price.
Courtesy of one outspoken fan (who graciously sent me this bottle; thank you Mike!), I have the pleasure today of trying it for the first time. Because I am not an android devoid of emotion, it should go without saying that my expectations for this bottle are colored by its support from the community and relative cost to me (none). As always, I will attempt to remove that bias as best I can.
The pertinent details include that it is 100 proof (50% ABV) and aged for at least 4 years, per the bottled-in-bond regulations. The mash bill is made up of 79% corn, 11% rye, and 10% malted barley. This bottle is priced at $25 per 1 liter and is not currently available in 750ml bottles.
Lastly, the label features some interesting flourishes including the phrases “Old Style Whisky”, “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky”, and “Generations of experience in crafting fine whiskies” which are apparently attempts to remind us of this expression’s former glory. “Estd. 1860” further underlines this association, along with “DSP KY 354” adorning the neck label, a reference to Brown-Forman, the longest continuously operating distillery under the same ownership in Kentucky.
Those flourishes are particularly important in light of the fact that in June of 2020 the Early Times brand and existing barrels were sold to Sazerac. Then, in 2021, it was announced that the production of Early Times would be relocated to Barton 1792 Distillery (the oldest fully-operating distillery in Bardstown) and made using “the same original recipe and mash bill.” Time will tell if the flavor remains consistent, though surely the label will see some changes in the years to come.
Early Times Bottled-in-Bond – Review
Color: A brand new penny.
On the nose: Cloying medicinal cherry was prominent when I first opened this one but as it’s had time to air out (over the course of a week) the medicinal note has receded. It’s now more of a Luden’s wild cherry lozenge; still artificially sweet though much less so. That sweetness is joined by ripe orange rind with top notes of honey and vanilla. Very faint leather is also present. Overall, it is pleasant.
In the mouth: Begins a bit austere, as the citrus leads the way before a bit of heavy cream follows in its wake, which then settles into the cherry Luden’s from the nose, along with barrel char. That initial citric tartness maintains itself throughout the sip, rippling from the tip of the tongue to it’s outer edges and traveling up the roof of your mouth. A slight tobacco-leaf-meets-milk-chocolate note streaks down the middle of the palate and offers a welcome balance, as the tartness initially threatened to throw things askew. The texture is a little thin but does just enough to hold all the flavors together. As the somewhat short and dry finish takes over, oak comes rumbling back in a welcome way to keep this from being overly dessert-like.
It’s difficult for me to discuss this bourbon without thinking of Graham’s recent musings on scoring a whiskey or without mentioning another expression, Wild Turkey 101. I consider Wild Turkey 101 to be the benchmark of “average” (that is to say good-not-great) bourbon. Early Times Bottled-in-Bond and Wild Turkey 101 both have a “classic bourbon” profile with Wild Turkey’s expression offering a bit more spice and an additional proof point, while Early Times offers more fruit and oak.
In considering “value” it should be noted that the same price of admission gets you 1 liter of Early Times versus 750ml with Wild Turkey 101. In addition to that volumetric value, Early Times offers an impressive infusion of oak for its age, and a popular cherry note that many seek out in harder-to-find and more expensive Buffalo Trace expressions. However, while Early Times Bottled-in-Bond has a lot to offer, ultimately I don’t think it does enough to distinguish itself from the middle of the pack.