This story has two beginnings. The first originates as many American immigrant stories start, with the desire for a better life. In 1850, John Phillip Nelson sold his soap and candle business, converted all of his worldly possessions into gold, and packed up his family onto the Helena Sloman bound from Germany to America. The crossing was vicious and many people lost their lives in the stormy seas, including John Phillip Nelson, who left his fifteen-year-old son, Charles Nelson, as the head of the penniless family in a new country.
Fortunately, Charles proved to be incredibly resourceful. By his early twenties, Charles had moved from a candle and soap maker, then butcher and grocer, to the owner of the 5th registered distillery in Tennessee. By 1885, Charles was selling over 380 000 gallons of whiskey, which, to put that into perspective, is approximately 16.5 times the amount of whiskey Jack Daniels was producing at the time. They became the largest distillery in the state, produced over 30 labels and were one of the first to individually bottle and sell their product. Even when Charles passed away, his wife Louisa continued to run the business with great success for eighteen years before the blade of prohibition came crashing down on American alcohol production.
The second beginning starts more innocuously, with a family road trip to a butcher shop nearly one hundred years later. Charlie and Andy Nelson were on a short trip with their father through rural Tennessee when they stopped for gas and came upon a historical marker that read Nelson Distillery. To their surprise, they learned that their great-great-great granddad Charles Nelson had founded a popular distillery and that its original location was just across the street from the butcher. They explored the intact facilities and drank clear water from the fresh spring that once fed the distillery’s operations. And just like that, their destiny was sealed – they would revive their great-great-great granddad’s Greenbrier distillery.
Both philosophy majors, Charlie and Andy had very literally no idea how to begin and run a distillery, so they divided the tasks and settled into what would become years of hard work and vigorous research in order to educate themselves. Charlie became the de facto historian, searching through archives until he found original labels, advertisements and even original Charles Nelson’s bourbon recipes garnered from old newspaper articles. Andy tackled the difficult and often temperamental art of distilling, first through self-education and later under the two-week crash course mentorship of Maker’s Mark retired distiller Dave Pickerell. Andy learned that true Tennessee Whiskey must be barrel aged, that the use of a sugar charcoal filter imparts a smoother, more mellow flavor, and that Charles Nelson’s whiskeys were wheated, a characteristic that makes their whiskey unique in the state of Tennessee.
Though the story is a gold mine of historical intrigue and emotional connections, investors were reticent and it took the brothers over nine years of dedication and patience, living at home with their parents and binging on PB & J sandwiches, to find the resources to turn their dream into reality. Now, Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery has a home. The completely refurbished interior is part museum, part functioning distillery and part sophisticated urbane hang out. In fact, the place is so beautiful that they utilize some of the space to lease out for weddings and events. They also conduct tours and tastings every Tuesday-Saturday from 12pm – 5pm every hour on the hour and we highly recommend that you take one if you find yourself in Nashville.
The Belle Meade Bourbon was their first product, decided upon because historically, it was made in conjunction with another company and in the beginning, Charlie and Andy simply did not have the funds to make whiskey with their own equipment. Now, the distillery produces Belle Meade Bourbon, Tennessee White Whiskey (Belle’s favorite), and Sherry Cask Finished Bourbon.
In the future, the brothers hope to revitalize the original site of Nelson’s Greenbrier distillery and use the current building for experimental distilling and tours. While the current production is approximately three barrels of whiskey per day, by the end of next year they should be up to three shifts a day, resulting in four and a half barrel capabilities. This makes sense given the enormous growth the company has undergone in the last few years, with a growing distribution that includes most of the southeast, Illinois, and California, and multiple accolades from international whiskey competitions such as the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
There are many reasons to patronize Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery – the history, the clean, mellow flavor of the true Tennessee whiskies, or even the beauty of the packaging – but we love this whiskey business because it epitomizes family. Both mom and dad are at the distillery weekly, helping out with the books or anything that needs fixing, both brothers, so contradictory in personality, work together in tandem to resurrect their great-great-great-grandad’s company and even the cat, Sugar Maple Brix Nelson, contributes between long naps by keeping the mouse population at bay. Drinking their whiskey is appeals to the gut through its flavor, the heart through its familial dedication and the head through its century long history.