by Karl H. Kazaks
The signs were everywhere. On the historical roadside marker. In the local historic museum. They came to the Nelson brothers while they were on an errand with their father, driving north from Nashville to Robertson County, TN. The trip began as a simple task but has ended up being much more than that — the founding event in what has become a lifelong journey for Charlie and Andy Nelson.
Eight years after that fateful day, the brothers are well on their way to resurrecting Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery.
In the later part of the 19th century and early years of the 20th, that distillery was one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of spirits. At its pre-Prohibition peak, it produced nearly 380,000 gallons of whiskey a year, selling its spirits around the country and overseas. The business was built by the brothers’ great-great-great-grandfather, Charles Nelson — and after his death in 1891, run by his widow, Louisa.
The brothers knew their ancestor had immigrated from Germany in the years before the Civil War, eventually settling in the Nashville area. What they didn’t realize, however, was that he had run a distillery for almost 40 years, until Tennessee passed state-wide Prohibition in 1909.
The signs clued the Nelsons to their legacy.
Stopping to get gas while on their errand, Charlie noticed a road marker which proclaimed that Charles Nelson had operated a distillery in the area from 1870 to 1909.
Charlie Nelson will always remember the moment.
“I said, ‘Holy Cow, that’s crazy, that’s my name on there! Is he related to me?’”
A few queries later, and the Nelsons found the location of the old distillery — including a extant barrel warehouse and the springs which fed the distillery. Then, in a local historic museum, the brothers saw two unopened bottles of Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey.
“Every hair on my body stood up,” Charlie recalled. “It was like being struck by lightning. It was one of the craziest moments of my life. My brother and I looked at each other and said, ‘This is what we’re here to do.’ We decided then and there to bring back this old distillery.”
The brothers started by researching, learning as much as they could about their forgotten ancestor and his spirits business. They learned that the distillery produced about 30 different brands of spirits, including bourbons, ryes, Tennessee whiskeys, brandies, and gins. Two of the brands, they discovered, he made in partnership with other companies.
Their brothers devised a plan: they would raise money, build a distillery, age their whiskey, and release it when it was ready.
Raising money was the hard part, Charlie said. “Investors would ask, ‘Have you ever started a distillery? Have you ever run a distillery? Have you ever run a business?’”
The Nelsons answered no to all those questions, which led the investors to say, “Good luck.”
So the brothers decided to re-tool their approach.
They were committed to rebuilding their ancestral distillery in line with its historical roots, so they decided to wade into the spirits business by partnering with an existing firm, as their ancestor had done for some of his brands. So the brothers found a contract distiller (MGP Ingredients of Lawrenceburg, IN) and decided to release a bourbon first, waiting to release a Tennessee whiskey until they had built their own distillery.
The bourbon, Belle Meade, was finally released last year. It is currently distributed in a dozen states, mostly in the Southeast but also in Texas and California.
Like the entirety of the Nelsons’ enterprise, the bourbon is the result of copious research. They tasted samples of bourbons made with different barrels and different yeast strains. They knew they wanted the bourbon to have a high rye content to match the bourbons made by their ancestor. The result is a bourbon made with two mash bills, two different yeast strains, and bottled in four-barrel batches at 90.4 proof. The age varies from batch to batch, but is between six and eight years old.
“The goal is a consistent taste profile rather than an age statement,” Charlie said.
Green Brier is set to open its distillery — complete with tasting room and tours — this year, in the Marathon Village area of Nashville. The location does have a historical antecedent as well. Their forefather not only had the distillery in Robertson County but also a Nashville facility. In fact, the Nashville facility was the first location Charles Nelson opened in the 19th century.
Nelson found success as a grocer by offering whiskey by the bottle, more convenient than the barrel or jug formats common at the time. As demand for his bottle whiskey grew, Nelson bought his source distillery and its patents and greatly expanded its production.
The brothers will be using the historic labels from their ancestor.
“We’re really fortunate to have that solid foundation,” Charlie said. “Other labels spend millions on brands and a story behind that brand. We have that stuff, and it’s original.”
The Nelsons’ Nashville facility will open with a 750 gallon hybrid pot-and-column still from Vendome. Eventually, they may add a second, column still. The facility is sized to produce up to 50,000 cases per year.
Andy, who has been training with Dave Pickerell, a past master distiller at Maker’s Mark, will be the master distiller and in charge of operations and production. Charlie will oversee sales and marketing.
Eventually, the brothers hope to build a bigger production facility in Robertson County, again mirroring the pattern established by their forefather.
In the meantime, they’re eager to get their distillery open and start making Tennessee Whiskey, which they expect to be their signature brand, as it was for the distillery over a century ago.
They will — as the previous incarnation of the distillery did — refer to their sugar maple charcoal filtering process as the “Robertson County process.”
Getting to this point after years of planning, years of seeking investment, years of being told “no,” has been challenging, Charlie acknowledged. Running into roadblock after roadblock, he said, “was really tough. But I sort of had this fire inside me that never went out. It was like I had fallen in love and there was nothing that was going to stop me — and there still isn’t. We’re going to resurrect these brands.”