Distilling History

Andy and Charlie Nelson are two happy brothers. Sitting in the tasting room of the 21st century iteration of Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Nashville they relate stories of their family history, detail how they built their business, and celebrate the re-introduction of the distillery’s flagship brand, Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey. It’s an occasion that’s been in the making for 13 years, or 141 years, depending on how you look at it.

“Back in 2006 our father went in with a friend to buy a whole, butchered cow in Greenbrier, Tennessee,” Andy Nelson says, starting with the shorter version of the Nelson family story. “We stopped to get gas and noticed a historical marker for Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery near the gas station. We didn’t even know the marker existed. It was a spooky moment. Charlie and I grew up hardly knowing anything about our family’s history with distilling. We knew there was once some sort of whiskey business. We didn’t know how big it was or if it was even legal. We’d just heard bits and pieces of the story from older relatives.”

Although the marker was short on details, it contained the basic facts: the distillery operated from 1870 to 1909, was one of the largest producers of alcohol in Tennessee, and was a major economic force in Robertson County — but there were more revelations to come.

“The butcher lived about a mile east of the maker,” Andy Nelson continues. “When we got to his house, we asked him what he knew about the old distillery, and he said, ‘Look across the road, that’s one of the old barrel warehouses.’ Behind it was the original spring house and another old building from the distillery. The butcher sent us to the Greenbrier Historical Society and they had several artifacts, including two original bottles of Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey. It was a revelation. I was a year out of college and Charlie just had one semester left. We didn’t have career paths planned out. If we had a passion for something, we could do it, and we found it.”

Inspired by their day of discovery and the two bottles bearing their name, the brothers began years of research. Digging through historical records, state and county archives, and old newspaper files, they uncovered a complex family history.

Charles Nelson was born on July 4, 1835 in Hagenow, a small town in northern German Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. The oldest of six children, his father, John Philip Nelson, was a successful soap and candle manufacturer who sold his factory in 1850, converted his fortune into gold, and embarked for the United States with his family.

While at sea, their ship encountered a severe gale. The ship suffered damage and began taking on water. An American sailing packet rescued the passengers and crew, but during the transfer, a small boat carrying the Nelson family overturned, and John Nelson, with the family’s gold sewn into his clothing, was lost at sea.

“The rest of the family survived and made it to New York,” Charlie Nelson says, picking up the story. “Charles took over as man of the family and found work making soap and candles. He moved to Cincinnati two years later and became a butcher. In 1858 he moved to Nashville and started a wholesale grocery business — with whiskey as one of his best-selling items. He eventually bought an existing distillery in Greenbrier along with a patent for improved distillation, becoming the largest distillery in the state. By 1895 he was producing 380,000 gallons a year and marketing 30 brands (of spirits) — Tennessee whiskey, bourbon, corn whiskey, peach and apple brandies, and more — with distribution across the entire U.S.”

Charles Nelson’s death in 1891 didn’t slow the success as his widow, Louisa Nelson, took charge. One of the first women to operate a distillery in the U.S., Louisa guided the family business until Tennessee adopted prohibition in 1909, sounding the death knell for hundreds of Volunteer State distilleries.

As the Nelson brothers uncovered their family history, they became determined to reclaim their family legacy. Following a common roadmap for start-up boutique distillers, they planned to purchase product from existing distilleries, create a unique blend, and market it under their own brand name, raising capital from their “starter brand” to eventually build their own production facility.

“We started trying to raise money but couldn’t get anyone to invest,” Charlie says. “We ended up borrowing against our parents’ house. At the time, I was renting a house in East Nashville at the corner of 12th and Holly. It was a nice house and impressive when people came for meetings, but they didn’t know I had a couple of other roommates.”

In 2013, the brothers launched Belle Meade Bourbon, drawing the name and label design from a brand introduced in 1878 by the original Green Brier Distillery. The success of Belle Meade Bourbon led to the construction of the new Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Marathon Village. As the business grew, they added variations of Belle Meade Bourbon and “Louisa’s,” a coffee caramel pecan liqueur named in honor of their great-great-great-grandmother, but their primary goal was the rebirth of Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey.

“Back in the day they would offer tours of the distillery on the Fourth of July,” Charlie Nelson says. “We found an old newspaper account that detailed the distilling process step-by-step, including the percentages of corn, wheat and malted barley they used for making the Tennessee Whiskey.”

Using that original recipe, the Nelsons began distilling their ancestor’s recipe in-house in August 2014, fully aware that it would require five years for the whiskey to mature. The use of wheat rather than rye as the “flavoring grain” gave Nelson’s a more rounded flavor profile with stronger confectionary notes than other, more well-known Tennessee Whiskeys.

While Belle Meade Bourbon will continue flowing from the distillery alongside Nelson’s, the reintroduction of the distillery’s flagship brand closes a chapter that began in the Tennessee countryside 13 years ago.

“This brings it all full circle,” Charlie Nelson says. “The night before we re-launched Nelson’s on October 1st I couldn’t sleep. It was like waiting for Christmas morning times a million, knowing that this goal we had been working on for over a third of my life was coming to fruition. On my way to work the next morning, I stopped at a liquor store as they were opening their doors and bought a couple of bottles. I went on to the next store and bought a couple of bottles. Went on to the next and bought a couple more bottles. You could not wipe the smile off my face
all day.”

“It was a long day,” Charlie continues, “but when I got home, the first thing I did was open one of the bottles, and pour a couple of fingers into a rocks glass my other brother Sean had given me that had a picture of the historical marker we discovered in Greenbrier etched in the glass. Before I could take a sip, I burst into tears. My girlfriend walked into the room and saw me and said, “Oh my God, are you okay?” We’ve been together seven years and I don’t think she’d ever seen me cry. I just said, ‘I’m so happy,’ and that’s probably the most enjoyable glass of whiskey I’ve ever had.”

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