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
June 25, 2020 at 12:39 pm
Informative write up. I was also surprised that Brown Forman were willing to let Early Times go with so much history behind the brand. Interestingly, Japan currently has two Early Times labels. There is a Brown label as in your pictures above, which features the Old Forester mashbill, and a Yellow label which utilizes the Early Times mashbill.
July 30, 2020 at 5:51 pm
Will Early Times still be distilled at Brown Forman?
August 11, 2020 at 3:40 pm
I doubt it. Buffalo Trace has enough still capacity to make it themselves. The question for me is are they going to keep the same recipe and yeast? Did they purchase the yeast with the recipe?
October 6, 2020 at 3:38 am
If Brown-Forman bought Old Kentucky Distillery and then changed the name to Early Times, do they, or rather, now, Sazerac, still own the name Old Kentucky Distillery?
October 6, 2020 at 6:32 pm
I doubt that the name Old Kentucky Distillery even entered the conversation during the sale. My guess is Brown-Forman still owns the name, but whether they are keeping it trademarked, I have not checked.
October 6, 2020 at 9:56 pm
I looked at the USPTO and also searched for Old Kentucky Distillery and Old Kentucky Distilling Company but never found a current name. I made the connection between Early Times Distillery having the same DSP at OKD but I guess I missed the part where Brown-Forman bought the distillery. Its been a hundred years since OKD was a producer or product. The reason I am asking, a few friends want to start our own label…just like everyone else, and have fun doing it because we love bourbon and rye. Anyway, thanks for your time. If you have any history on OKD Id love to hear it!
October 6, 2020 at 10:18 pm
The distillery was rebuilt after prohibition and was making whiskey, but sold to Brown-Forman in the early 1840s.
February 2, 2021 at 6:33 am
Early Times Bottled-In-Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon has been very difficult to find at retailers over the last few months. Any information on when Sazerac (the new owner) will make this very flavorful bourbon available for purchase retailers? (I’m located in MI.)
Thanks and regards,
February 2, 2021 at 4:52 pm
I have not heard anything yet. I hope they do not change the recipe as I like the high corn recipe of Early Times.
March 21, 2021 at 2:56 pm
Bourbon has a big history in our family. Our roots are from Kentucky and one of my ancestors was JW Dant. My great grandmothers family were also in the the biz.I have been sampling bourbons (I love retirement) and really liked Early Times especially in mixed drinks. It was always in my parents liquor cabinet along with Old Fitz, Old Grand Dad, Makers and others.
Here is a story that makes bourbon lovers cringe. When my Dad died we were cleaning out the house and my sister and I were cleaning out the liquor cabinet. We found this bottle that made us laugh because of the name. It was 3/4 gone. We assumed it was some cheap crap he used in a pinch or received as a gift. We dumped it. It was Pappy Van Winkle! That was before the bourbon craze began. 😫
April 15, 2021 at 10:36 pm
Early time is any mint julep bourbon?
April 17, 2021 at 4:13 pm
The Early Times mint julepwas made with the Kentucky style whiskey, not Bourbon under Brown-Forman. I do not know what Buffalo Trace plans to do with the brand.
April 17, 2021 at 6:48 pm
Since acquiring Early Times from Brown-Forman, Sazerac states that it is continuing Early Times Bottled-In-Bond Bourbon and will produce it at the 1792 Distillery. It has become available again at some retailers in various states.
April 17, 2021 at 6:52 pm
FYI – see below form Barton 1792:
“Following the purchase of Early Times whiskey in 2020 by Sazerac Company, the notable American whiskey brand will begin distillation, aging and bottling at the 1792 Distillery in Bardstown, KY this summer. First introduced by John Henry “Jack” Beam, uncle of Jim Beam in 1860, Early Times whiskey has rich American roots that will prove a valuable addition to Sazerac’s deep whiskey portfolio….
… Though Early Times will have a new home, Barton 1792 Distillery will continue to deliver the same great tasting Early Times Bottled-in-Bond product that consumers have grown to love using the original recipe and mash bill.
With a new source of production, consumers can expect the well-known Early Times BIB whiskey to uphold the Bottled-in-Bond Act regulations and continue to be bottled at 50% ABV (100 Proof).”
April 17, 2021 at 7:21 pm
I have seen this information, but it does not say if Buffalo Trace plans do do with the mint julep.
September 13, 2022 at 7:42 am
The Japan Early Times Brown KSBW is quite good. It has a very impressive mouthfeel for an 80 proofer. I’d love to try an even higher proof expression.
Lincoln Henderson Process anyone?
Here is a pretty accurate review:: https://tokyobourbonbible.blogspot.com/2016/03/early-times-brown-label.html
November 11, 2022 at 9:47 am
Any interested in purchasing an early times Kentucky bottle with original yellow label unopened. Will send image of the beauty .. only serious buyers . Maverick765@gmail.com
December 1, 2022 at 1:09 am
I am in the hunt for Early Times Wisconsin Whopper Glass. This was always my fathers Whiskey drinking glass and 95 yr old my father passed away I gave it to my daughter who was Papa’s girl. However she recently moved and it was broken in the process. So I am on the hunt after I find one! The plan.. I will go have a whiskey with my father in the glass then wrap it up for a Christmas present. I can then say Papa and I had a drink in the glass. It is now okay for you to throw the broken one away. If anyone knows of any way to get my hands on one I would greatly appreciate your help.