September 2017 by Michael Pendley
Ask any liquor store manager near a college campus today what their bestselling whiskey is, and chances are high they will answer Early Times Kentucky Whiskey. What makes it so popular among the collegiate crowd? Well, mainly the price, which normally comes in right around $12 per 750ml bottle.
But other bottom shelf dwellers share that price range and don’t see near the popularity. Why? Because Early Times is very drinkable, either on the rocks or in mixed drinks. The high corn, nearly 80%, and low rye mash bill offers up a lot of sweetness with very little burn. Couple that with a relatively low 80 proof, and you get a very smooth, very easy to drink whiskey.
Notice I say whiskey, and not bourbon. Let’s go over the rules a whiskey must to meet in order to be labeled as bourbon.
A bourbon must:
Be distilled in the United States
Have a mash bill of at least 51% corn.
Be distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume)
Have a barrel entry proof of no more than 125 proof
Be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof
And must be aged in new, charred-oak barrels
It’s that last rule that makes the original Early Times a whiskey and not a bourbon. New oak barrels are expensive. As a cost-saving measure, Brown-Forman ages Early Times in used barrels. Pour a glass and look at it against the light and it becomes readily apparent. The whiskey lacks the deep coppers and rich ambers of bourbon aged in new barrels.
So, what happens if you take that same easy-to-drink mash bill and put it in a new barrel? And what if you leave it in the warehouse for at least four years? And, if you are going to do all that, shouldn’t you bottle it at 100 proof to classify it as Bottled in Bond?
The folks at Brown-Forman must have wondered the same thing, because that is just what they have done with their new Early Times Bottled in Bond Bourbon release. The new barrels and extra year are immediately apparent when you hold it up to the light. The color is much richer, a deep copper. Hold it up to your nose and inhale and you instantly know this isn’t the same old Early Times.
In today’s overinflated bourbon market, it is refreshing to see the folks behind the new Early Times release have held the price at a very reasonable $30 or slightly less for a liter sized bottle. Most limited releases these days come in at double that price or more.
Mash Bill: 79% Corn, 11% Rye, 10% Malted Barley
Proof: 100 (50% ABV)
Age: At least 4 years (4 years is the minimum age to be labeled a bottled in bond bourbon)
Appearance: Deep copper, much richer and darker than standard Early Times
MSRP: Around $30 for a one-liter bottle, I paid $25.99
Nose: Not noticeably strong, but classic bourbon. Heavy on corn and apple. A bit lighter on caramel, vanilla, and oak. Tilting the glass on the inhale gives strong ethanol.
Palate: Sweet corn comes through immediately, fruit, apples and raisins. The oak is very light. Noticeably little burn for a 100-proof whiskey.
Finish: Short, crisp. Very little lingering burn. The flavor disappears very soon after swallowing.
Notes: Is Early Times Bottled in Bond one of the best new releases of 2017? Not even close. Is it a respectable bourbon? Absolutely. Great on ice, but more than robust enough to sip neat. This is an excellent introduction to Bottled in Bond Bourbons, flavorful without being overly complicated. For the price, you should definitely pick up a bottle when you see it on the shelf. A very respectable upgrade to a 75-year-old classic.
Michael Pendley lives in the heart of central Kentucky’s bourbon country. When he isn’t poking around local distilleries, he can usually be found searching for dusty bottles of old whiskey that might be hidden in the back rooms of liquor stores. He, along with his wife and three children, are very active in the outdoors. Michael also writes the twice-weekly wild game cooking blog Timber2Table at Realtree.com