I was surprised to hear that Brown-Forman is selling the Early Times brand to Sazerac. Brown-Forman have owned the brand for almost a century, and in the 1950s, it was the best-selling Bourbon in Kentucky and even today, it is one of the best-selling Bourbons in Japan. I thought a historical retrospective of the brand would be of interest.

The Early Times brand was created in 1863 by Jack Beam and A.G. Nall. They built a distillery in Nelson County, Kentucky and wanted to make old fashioned, sour mash, copper distilled whiskey –like they made in the “early times” of Kentucky. Their three brands were Early Times, Jack Beam and A.G. Nall. The brand was popular and the distillery grew when they built a new distillery at what became known as “Early Times Station”, on the L&N Railroad spur not far from their original distillery in Nelson County. 

By the early 20th century, Friedman, Keiler & Co. of Paducah, Kentucky, became the main distributor of the Early Times whiskey. The brands must have done well by Friedman, Keiler & Co. as in 1910, Mida’s Criteria gives them a “AAAA” rating, meaning they had a value of over one million dollars. In 1915 Jack Beam died and soon after his son followed him to the grave. The distillery management was in flux and Prohibition soon followed starting with wartime Prohibition prevented distilleries from making beverage alcohol in order to make industrial alcohol for the war in 1918. National Prohibition was passed in January 1919 and the wartime prohibition was extended. The distillery closed down.

S. L. Guthrie had control of the distillery when Prohibition closed it down. Guthrie sold the remaining stocks of whiskey and the Early Times brand to Brown-Forman in 1923. The brand was part of Brown-Forman’s portfolio of brands of medicinal spirits, sold during Prohibition. Early Times Bourbon soon became a major brand for Brown-Forman.

When Prohibition ended, Brown-Forman soon needed to expand its production facilities. They purchased the Old Kentucky Distillery in Shively, Kentucky in 1936 and renamed it the Early Times Distillery. Production of the brand grew and by 1953, the brand became the nation’s top selling Bourbon. To protect the brand, Brown-Forman withdrew the brand from a major southern distributor who wanted to lower the price and use the brand as a loss leader for other brands. Brown-Forman did not want the image of quality to be tarnished by such a move. Two years later, in 1955, Brown-Forman acquired the Jack Daniel Distillery and slowly, the focus moved away from Early Times and toward Jack Daniel. By the 1980s, Early Times had become a low priority in the portfolio of Brown-Forman.

In 1983, Brown-Forman made the decision to make the Early Times brand a “Kentucky Style Whiskey” by aging some of the whiskey in used cooperage and lowering the proof to 80. The brand was no longer a Bourbon in the United States. The Bourbon was still available in overseas markets and was doing well in Japan. The Early Times Kentucky Style whiskey continued to sell in the very soft whiskey market of the 1980s and 90s, but as the Bourbon market strengthened in the 21st century, sales of Early Times declined. There were some efforts to save the brand. It was selling very well in Japan and Lincoln Henderson once gave me a bottle of Early Times Bourbon for the Japanese market that he was particularly proud of making for that market. Instead of using activated charcoal in the filtering process, he had substituted some charred coconut shell and it definitely gave the whiskey a hint of coconut flavor. 

Brown-Forman also brought the Bourbon back to the domestic market. First, in 2010, they tried a new label – “Early Times 354”, named for the DSP number of the Early Times Distillery and bottled at 80 proof. This did not do well as the low proof did not have much more flavor than the Kentucky Style Early Times that was still on the market and less expensive that the Early Times 354. This bottled-in-bond product was withdrawn from the market after a couple of years but was replaced 2017 by a Bottled-in-Bond Early Times. This expression has much more flavor and was well received. But evidently, not selling well enough for Brown-Forman, since in 2020, they are selling the brand to Sazerac. Let us hope that Sazerac will continue to sell the Bottled-in-Bond Early Times and keep the rich heritage of this brand alive.

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller