If you haven’t heard the story of Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, makers of Belle Meade Bourbon, it’s one you’ll know well after a trip to the newly opened distillery at Marathon Village. Thanks to years of diligent research and artifact collecting, brothers Charlie and Andy Nelson have amassed enough items to fill a Hall of History along the distillery’s brick-and-wood walls.
The visual storybook outlines the life and times of Charles Nelson, their great-great-great-grandfather, who came to the U.S. from Germany and proceeded to launch one of the South’s most prolific brands of spirits. The business existed past his death in 1891—it was run for 18 years by his wife, Louisa, whom the Nelsons say became the country’s first female distiller—until Prohibition in 1909. Charlie and Andy discovered the story of the brand and relaunched the business just over eight years ago. They’ve been plotting and planning for this physical space ever since—and purposefully opened in time for the 81st anniversary of the day Prohibition was repealed on December 5.
Like most whiskey distillers getting off the ground, the Nelsons started out by purchasing a lot of whiskey and aging it themselves to produce Belle Meade Bourbon. Today, they’re distilling on Tennessee soil and anxious to expand their line.
“In a sense, Belle Meade Bourbon helped us build this place. That’s not a total coincidence,” says Charlie Nelson. He’s pointing specifically toward the white oak barrel staves that once held gallons of Belle Meade Bourbon but now make up one wall of the space. “Barrels are such a huge part of the business; they’re what really give you the flavor and color in your whiskey. That just seemed to us to be a solid foundation to build on. And there are so many secondary uses for them, whether it’s to age beer or hot sauce or syrup—or to build walls.”
The 30,000-square-foot space feels like those barrel parts—worn in and yet newly repurposed—thanks to architect Jeff Casella of Gilbert McLaughlin Casella. One of the main goals for the design team, says Casella, was “to make sure we were pulling inspiration from the materials utilized in making spirits [and also] to make the most of the industrial language of the building [while] somehow allow for the telling of the family story.” By converting two bays of 100-year-old warehouse into the distillery, they’ve made space for production facilities, a tasting room and tour experience, a retail store, barrel storage, and still undeveloped event space. “The brick and concrete have taken on a patina, that if we tried to reinvent, would be too precise,” adds Casella. “There is a thoughtful roughness to the detailing and implementation of the new scheme.”
“A lot of what we’re trying to do is honor the traditions, history, and heritage of the company but also embrace change,” says Charlie. “It’s all about blending the old and the new.”
Falling right in line with that marriage is “Miss Louisa,” a gleaming 750-gallon copper and brass still produced by Vendome in Kentucky. Named for that plucky woman who once ran the distillery, the new piece of equipment not only speaks to the Nelsons’ pride in the family’s heritage but also of what’s coming next. To start, the team has begun distilling Nelson’s Green Brier original Tennessee whiskey, which true to the laws set in place in 2013, is aged within our state borders and filtered through charcoal. Barrels of it are already stacked around the distillery. And they’ve just launched two new bottles: a Tennessee white whiskey and a limited run of Belle Meade Bourbon that was aged in sherry casks.
“[Charles] had about seven Tennessee whiskeys, multiple bourbons, multiple ryes, corn whiskeys, a malt whiskey, apple brandy, peach brandy, and three gins,” says Charlie. “Over time, I’d love to do [all] 30 recipes.”
For now, you can taste their current lineup of products at the new distillery—by purchasing a $5 tour of the space, you’re allowed a one-ounce pour of each. Eventually, that might add up to a pretty hefty tasting.
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