Early Times

As my journey through whiskey has evolved it has gradually become more and more focused on the story. If you limit your enjoyment of spirits to nothing but the flavor it will soon become dull as there is a nearly infinite supply of great tasting and bad tasting whiskey out there. It soon becomes boring simply rating them as “better” or “worse”. What led me to the story of whiskey was curiosity. When I found a good spirit I immediately wanted to learn why it was better compared to other good spirits. Why was it different? What in this whiskey’s creation, aging – story – made it unique. This led to research of distilleries, grains, wood, water sources and the time periods it was produced. Along the way some organic chemistry gets tossed in the mix and before I knew it I was more of a science and history buff with whiskey as a vehicle for learning. This is fun and all but as I get older I also find the nostalgia of spirits intriguing. After all, the enjoyment of alcohol is one of the first and most wide spread social customs in the entire world. Like many of us, I had memories of my family drinking particular spirits which is where my desire to learn, collect and taste Early Times came from. When you taste a great whiskey you taste not only the spirit but your idea of the spirit. If someone hands you something without a word it will invariably be rated lower than something handed to you with declarations of its impressive flavors and long history of traditional production!

Growing up much of my most memorable times were camping trips with my grandfather. This was Montana mainly in the 1970’s. He was quite a unique character. He was one of the last self-taught electrical engineers responsible for coal and nuclear power plant development in this country with the Bechtel Corp as well as a redneck with a pickup, a gun and close at hand was always a fifth of Early Times with his mixer of choice – Squirt! That old yellow and red label was imprinted on my brain on the camp tables, in the pickup or at home on the counter. It fueled many a great celebration as well as a few family fights. As much as I remember the drunken nights around the campfire and all that you would expect of a Montana hunting trip – with motorcycles, bacon in a skillet on a wood fire – there were also memories of my grandfather’s reel-to-reel sound system and Mozart blasting off the tailgate. He was a naturally brilliant man who was raised before the need for higher education or political correctness. He caused a lot of pain in his own way but also a lot of joy and in the end plenty of memories.

How could I travel through my world of whiskey without trying to re-live a little of the past by finding and tasting some of that yellow label 1960-70’s Early Times? With this as a starting point it led to learning about various changes in the history of this whiskey, different bottlings, proofs, distilleries, etc… Soon I was building a small library of Early Times! This post is to lay a foundation of the brand and set the stage. I hope to soon complete the collection and start offering tasting notes.

Early Times is an old label. I would love to dedicate the remainder of this post to the history of it but better authors than I have already addressed it and this general timeline is mainly for reference and an introduction. If interested, please see this piece by Linda and John Lipman or this piece by Chuck Cowdery.

  • 1860 – distillery (DSP-KY-7) started by Jack Beam, Jim Beam’s Uncle using a mash bill 79% corn, 11% rye and 10% malted barley
  • 1915 – Jack Beam’s death, distillery leaves family hands
  • 1920 – prohibition is enacted and remaining whiskey stocks and the distillery purchased by Brown-Forman and moved to Louisville ending distillation of Early Times at Early Times Station (near Bardstown).
  • 1933 – prohibition ends and Early Times production resumes by Brown-Foreman (DSP-KY-354)
  • 1953 – Early Times is the best-selling brand of bourbon whiskey in America
  • 1970 – ?date uncertain? dropped from 86 proof to 80 proof
  • 1980 – release of the 90.4 Proof “Heritage Edition” Early Times commemorative bottle with wooden box
  • 1983 – Brown-Forman begins aging some of the whiskey in re-used cooperage thus removing the label of “Bourbon” and beginning the era of Early Times becoming “Old Style Kentucky Whisky”
  • 2010 – release of the 100 proof Bottled-In-Bond commemorative edition 375ml bottle with box reminiscent of the prohibition era prescription whiskey
  • 2017 – release of the 100 proof Bottled-In-Bond limited release *bourbon* whiskey