Whiskey Review: Early Times Bottled-In-Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

There are two great tragedies in the history of American bourbon. The first is well known: the prohibition era shutdown of the American alcohol industry, which killed a number of brands along with much of the institutional knowledge built over generations. But there was a second, lesser-known tragedy caused by the market downturn in the 1970’s and 1980’s, in which once great whiskey was forced into hibernation or turned into cheap imitations of itself. Early Times is a whiskey that was hit by both of these troubling times, but now Brown-Forman is trying to bring it back to fighting form.

History

The first Beam to produce and sell a barrel of whiskey was Jacob Beam in 1795, who produced a corn whiskey that used the sour mash fermentation process and was commonly known as “Old Tub.” His son David continued the tradition and moved the distillery to Nelson County Kentucky to take advantage of the rail lines that were popping up and would make distribution easier.

David’s son Jack Beam decided to leave the family distillery in 1860 to strike out on his own, founding a nearby distillery and naming it “Early Times.” The distillery would continue operating until Jack’s death in 1915; however, with the prohibition movement in the US and the impending world war, the decision was made to simply close the facility.

The Early Times brand would stick around, and eventually be purchased in 1923 by Owsley Brown of the Brown-Forman distilling company. They resurrected the brand in 1945 for a bottled-in-bond bourbon that became the most popular bourbon in the United States for a brief period. Unfortunately, the terrible period for whiskey known as the 1970’s saw the brand shift to a cheaper blended version and away from the long aged (aka: expensive to produce) original formulation.

Brown-Forman decided to re-release the Bottled-In-Bond straight bourbon whiskey version of Early Times in 2017, starting in a small market and eventually rolling out to national distribution.

Product

A “bottled in bond” whiskey has quite possibly the strictest requirements around it to bear that label. It has the same base requirements as a generic bourbon (being at least 51% corn based), and as a “straight” bourbon it also needs to meet specific alcohol content requirements at different points in its production. However, as a “bottled in bond” straight bourbon, once produced it must sit in a government inspected and monitored warehouse for a minimum of four years — two years longer than a normal “straight” bourbon.

In this case, Early Times starts with a grain bill of 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley. That all gets mashed and fermented using a proprietary yeast strain before it is distilled at one of Brown-Forman’s Kentucky distilleries — specifically, DSP-KY-354 where Early Times was previously distilled. That whiskey is then placed into new charred oak barrels for a period of four years, in the aforementioned government bonded and monitored warehouses before being bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV) and shipped out the door.

Packaging

There’s nothing revolutionary or groundbreaking going on here. The bottle is a traditional shape with a round body, rounded shoulder, and a relatively long neck for easy pouring. The bottle is topped off with a plastic screw-on cap.

One thing to note is that there is a plastic shrink wrapped wrapper on the top of the neck, but it doesn’t seem to be that well made. It doesn’t seem to have any perforations to make removal easier, and as a result I needed to just rip off the whole thing.

The label on the body is a bit more interesting and appealing. In terms of size, it’s a big solid square… which is one of my pet peeves, hiding the whiskey in favor of branding. That said, it’s a nice royal blue color and seems to go well with the darker color of the whiskey. The label is written in an old fashioned font with some reflective metallic embellishments and overall delivers an appealing design.

I have a small quibble with the “Estd 1860” claim… since, while the brand does date to that time period, there is literally nothing else about the whiskey in this bottle that can trace its lineage to that original whiskey operation.

Neat

From the first whiff, you know that this is going to be a big, bold, beautiful bourbon. The first thing that hits you is a strong aroma of caramel, followed in short order by some vanilla and cherry fruit to round it all out. There’s also a touch of that bread-like maltiness tying the ideas together.

Taking a sip, at first things seem great. The flavor starts out with a smooth and delicious combination of caramel and vanilla, as all good bourbons should. There’s some pepper spice and some cinnamon thrown in there for good measure, too. But then the cherry kicks in. And gets louder. And then becomes an overpowering factor in the aftertaste.

In short, that cherry flavor is way too loud. Like the “crying baby on an overnight airplane flight” kind of way-too-loud. It seems over-indexed to the point where the aftertaste is almost on par with cherry flavored NyQuil for flavor comparison.

On Ice

Ice can be a double edged sword, toning down the more unpleasant aspects but also often burying some of the better flavors in the process. In this case, I think ice does the job admirably and really elevates the flavors in this spirit.

The primary way it succeeds is by telling the cherry flavor to chill out and sit in the corner for a minute. Everything else seems pretty well accounted for, but that overpowering cherry I experienced when taken neat is now in a supporting role. There’s still plenty of sweetness and spice from the rye to keep things interesting, it just seems to be a much better balanced drink.

One thing that comes out here moreso than when neat is the charred oak flavor. In this preparation, it makes itself known but not to the point of being obnoxious. It’s a solid deep and rich note that should work well in the next few tests.

Cocktail (Old Fashioned)

Make sure to add a bit of sugar, because you are definitely going to need it. This spirit isn’t particularly sweet on its own, so there isn’t much natively to balance out the bitterness of the angostura bitters when they get added in. It just becomes extra bitter and rich, which isn’t really my speed.

What does work well here is the interplay between the angostura bitters and the deep rich flavors of the bourbon. There’s enough depth and darkness in there to work with, and the result is savory with some fruity notes tied in for balance.

I wouldn’t call it my favorite old fashioned ever, but it’s a solid showing.

Fizz (Mule)

There are few pleasures in this world that I enjoy more than a good, well balanced mule. And this is damn close to perfection.

Right up front, there’s some good stuff going on. Those deeper and richer flavors are making a showing, and they do a great job of balancing out the brighter and more bitter flavors in the ginger beer. It’s a good combination that accentuates the best parts of each component, while hiding the sharper edges.

As the flavor develops, there’s some spice that starts to creep in as well, adding a texture and a component that you would never get in something like a Moscow mule (for example). It’s an example of the whiskey adding some distinctiveness to the experience, which is exactly what you want from the cocktail.

As things wind down and the flavor lingers for a bit, all you’re left with is some spicy pepper aspects and a bit of ginger playing off each other.

Things that I’d like to change? A little more sweetness would be good, it seems like that ginger flavor and richer tones battling it out up front would be helped and elevated by some more prominent brown sugar aspects. But otherwise it’s a solid showing.

Overall Rating

There isn’t anything groundbreaking in here, but sometimes that’s all you need. It’s a good bourbon with some rich flavors and if that’s what you need in your life, then this does it without breaking the bank. I like the idea of a “bottled in bond” whiskey… but in this case, I think they cranked the flavor up to an 11 when I was really looking for an eight and a half.

Early Times Bottled-In-Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Produced By: Early Times
Owned By: Brown-Forman Corp.
Production Location: United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: 3 Years
Proof: 50% ABV
Price: $20.49 / 750 ml
Overall Rating:

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Overall Rating: 3/5
Good enough for government work.

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