How Early Times Traversed Bourbon’s Ups and Downs for 160 Years

Early Times Bottled-in-Bond Distilled in 1916 and Bottled in 1935. Photo Courtesy Justins' House of Bourbon.

Early Times is turning 160 this year, and it’s celebrating its reign as one of the longest-running labels in bourbon.

The brand was born of bourbon royalty – in 1860, at the age of just 21, Jim Beam’s uncle Jack left the family business to start his own distillery. He called it Early Times, hoping to evoke an established feel for his upstart label, and distilled in the “old way,” cooking his mash in small tubs and boiling the beer in a copper still over open fires.

During the Panic of 1880, Jack lost financial control of his business, although he stayed on as the head distiller. The new leadership could have instituted a change in branding then, but the bourbon he made was well received and shipped around the country on the newly installed railroads. His son Edward joined him as a distiller until both died in 1915, Jack at the age of 75 and Edward at an untimely 42.

The distillery fell dormant after their death, and when Prohibition took effect not long after, many popular brands of the early 1900’s disappeared. In 1923, though, Brown-Forman owner Owsley Brown purchased the brand, saving it from extinction. He took stock of the barrels that had been left aging at the old distillery to sell as medicinal whiskey and bottled it under the recognizable Early Times name.

Early Times Advertisement from 1939 – “The whisky that made Kentucky Whiskies famous.” Courtesy of Early Times.

After Prohibition ended in 1933, the brand saw a golden age of bourbon. Early Times launched a Bottled-in-Bond expression in 1945, and by 1953 had risen to become the most popular bourbon in America. Their advertisements touted the brand as “The whisky that made Kentucky Whiskies famous,” and noted the accessible price point.

But when the industry took a downturn in the 1970s and 80s, the famous bottled-in-bond label fell into disuse. In 1983, the distillery made the shift to a blended whisky. While “bourbon” must be aged in new, charred oak, “light whiskey” is aged in used bourbon barrels. Early Times bottled after 1983 was a blend labeled “Old Style Kentucky Whisky,” using straight bourbon mixed with about 20% light whiskey.

(Side note – if you’re wondering why its spelled “whisky with a y,” forgoing the “-ey” normally found on American whiskey, you’re not alone. Brown-Forman products like Old Forester and Early Times use the Scottish spelling as a nod to their founder’s heritage.)

The Early Times Bottling Line, many years ago. Courtesy Photo.

“It’s amazing to see how many generations of families have had this brand on their bar,” said Brown-Forman Historian and Storyteller, Tim Holz. “With its rich history and deep connections to Kentucky’s distilling heritage, Early Times has played a key role in the American Whiskey category throughout its 160 years.”

And its story isn’t over. In 2017, amid a bourbon boom that Owsley could have only dreamed of, the distillery announced the return of Early Times Bottled-in-Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, a historic label with an affordable $25 price point that has since topped the bargain buy lists of bloggers and critics alike.

Today, Early Times is available in over 40 countries and is consistently ranks as one of the top ten best-selling unflavored American whiskeys in the world. To see more Early Times history and help celebrate this milestone, click here.