By Richard Thomas
Nowadays Early Times has a reputation as a palatable, but firmly bottom shelf whiskey, a status underlined by its American designation* as a “Kentucky whisky” rather than a Kentucky bourbon. The brand got that title in 1983, back when Maker’s Mark was the only premium bourbon around and rubble from the 1970s world whiskey crash was still lying in piles throughout the industry.
That was the year Brown-Forman, owner of Early Times, decided to move the brand to aging in used rather than new oak barrels. Early Times became cheaper to make, but it lost that extra something that new oak gives to the major categories of American whiskey, like the bourbon it used to be.
Before that shift took place, Early Times was fairly prestigious. Their Shively distillery was one of the few that snagged a license to continue production during Prohibition, a stroke of luck that has made Early Times the second oldest continuously produced whiskey in America. It also played a part in Brown-Forman buying the company in 1923. Early Times also one of the best sellers in the country until the 1980s. The story is similar in some ways to what happened to Four Roses, which went from being a top bourbon to a lower-tier blended whiskey at around the same time as Early Times was changed.
Now Early Times is taking a big step back to it’s roots this month with the addition of a Bottled in Bond bourbon (bourbon, not Kentucky whisky) to the brand. An Early Times Bottled in Bond was first introduced in the 1940s, so this is a welcome throwback of a brand extension. Best of all, it’s coming in reasonably priced one-liter bottles.
This is a light amber bourbon, just a little too dark to be described as copper. The swish and coat leaves leaf vein style legs, as in thick, often forking and dropping in tight clusters.
The nose has a straight character, predominately caramel with a strong note of musty, charred oak and a minor note of hot cinnamon. The liquid wears just a little thin on the palate, but still delivers a full 100 proof’s worth of flavor in the form of a classic, sweetness-forward bourbon. The flavor opens dryly with light notes of oak and spice, but a steady, fast current of brown sugar and caramel comes up and swamps that. This recedes on the finish, leaving a dry and spicy aftertaste that rapidly fades.
Early Times Bottled in Bond is a top notch example of a what bottled in bond can mean, and opens as one of the best examples of its category. On top of that, it’s also an outstanding budget bourbon.
$22.99 for a one-liter bottle
* Outside of the U.S., Brown-Forman is not required to adhere to U.S. labeling rules, so Early Times is labeled as bourbon and not Kentucky Whisky in the rest of the world.