NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) - From a dark barrel-filled room, two brothers recount their family heritage as a major distiller of spirits in 19th century Tennessee.
The process is in their blood, but it’s one Andy and Charlie Nelson, co-founders of Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Nashville, barely knew about until 2006.
“It all starts with our great-great-great-grandfather, Charles Nelson,” says Charlie, the younger of the two brothers. “Before the start of the Civil War, he moved to Nashville [in 1858] where he started a wholesale grocery business where he was one of the first to bottle and sell whiskey rather than sell it by the barrel or jug.”
Demand for Charles Nelson’s whiskey exceeded the supply, so he bought the distillery to expand production. From then on it was known as Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery and was located in Greenbrier, TN, about 25 miles north of Nashville. Very quickly, it became one of the largest distillers in the country - by far the largest in Tennessee.
The days of high production suddenly ceased in the early 20th century as the majority of Tennesseans turned away from alcohol.
“Statewide prohibition in Tennessee hit in 1909 which was ten years before federal Prohibition hit, so that was really the end of it,” says older brother and head-distiller Andy Nelson. “The barrel warehouse, the spring house and the grain house were the only buildings still remaining, and they’re still there today.”
The Nelson brothers saw the buildings in Greenbrier one day in 2006. At the time, Andy was 23 and Charlie was 21. It was the day the brothers first learned of their rich family heritage in distillation.
"Dad went in with a few buddies to buy a full cow worth of meat from this butcher [in Greenbrier],” says Andy. "There's this historical marker right at the corner of the street and it says 'Nelson's Greenbrier Distillery' on it and we looked at each other and we're like 'is this us? Is this our thing?'"
According to the historical marker, the distillery brought economic prosperity to Robertson county while it was in operation. With the help of the Greenbrier Historical Society, the brothers found old ads and memorabilia from the distillery. They even found two original bottles of Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey, bearing their name “Nelson.”
“The moment we saw those bottles with our name on them, everything just made sense,” said Charlie. “It was like being struck by lightning. Everything up until this moment now made sense.”
Immediately, the young brothers, age 23 and 21 at the time, knew they wanted to resurrect Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery. They wrote a business plan, sought advice from other distillers and researched their family history along the way. Through city, county and state archives, the Nelson brothers found newspaper articles with alcohol labels, articles and ads for the distillery’s products.
In that time, the brothers learned Charles Nelson had produced about thirty different labels of spirits during the distillery’s heyday. One label that stood out was named Belle Meade Bourbon. It featured two studs from the Belle Meade thoroughbred farm when it was used for boarding and breeding in the 19th century.
Charles Nelson had produced Belle Meade Bourbon in conjunction with another company. At that point, the brothers realized they were not bound by the need to reproduce the sour mash whiskey by themselves, but rather they could do the same.
“That was a cool natural progression for us,” says Andy. “We thought ‘if we can’t make our own stuff, you know this is a great way to start out smaller than expected, but still starting out, nonetheless.”
The brothers put up everything they owned to start the business. Their parents helped guarantee the bank loan so the brothers could begin sourcing barrels and working with a third-party contract distillery in Evansville, IN.
The Nelson brothers did not find the original recipe for Belle Meade Bourbon, but old newspaper articles gave them clues as to its contents. They knew it contained some rye, so they decided to make a bourbon under the discovered label with a high-rye content, about 30 percent, and aged for a minimum of 6 years.
In 2012, they sold their first bottle of the new Belle Meade Bourbon. It’s remained their best-selling product but led to spin-offs of the original, including a bourbon aged in Oloroso sherry casks. In 2015, it won “Best Special Barrel Finish Whiskey” in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition as well as a double-gold medal.
To this day, the contract distillery in Evansville makes Belle Meade Bourbon but the blending and bottling of the spirit happens in the Nelson’s distillery location on Clifton Street in Nashville, between Watkins Park and North Gulch.
From their first sell in 2012, the brothers were able to generate some revenue, attract investors, build their own distillery and begin production of another important brand, in-house.
The Nelson brothers knew from the beginning of their research in 2006 they wanted to reproduce the Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery Tennessee Whiskey, especially after they found the recipe in an old newspaper article.
“Charles Nelson’s right-hand-man was leading a group on a tour of their facility and he went through the whole process, ‘first we grind up 103 bushels of corn, then we cook it up to 212 degrees, and then we cool it down and add in 28 bushels of wheat and so-on and so-forth,” Charlie explains.
“But there was a journalist on the tour and they wrote it down word for word and then published it the next day and we found that article,” says Charlie.
Since the beginning, the brothers have wanted to recreate the Tennessee whiskey, especially after learning Charles Nelson’s whiskeys from the 19th century are credited with helping cement Tennessee whiskey as its own category of spirits.
Tennessee whiskey differs from bourbon on two fronts. First, it must be made in Tennessee with at least 51% corn. Secondly, after distillation, the distillate as it’s known, trickles through sugar maple wood which has been burned to create charcoal. The process is known as mellowing. Charles Nelson had perfected it and secured a patent for improved distillation in the process.
The brothers have been working on the relaunch of their great-great-great-grandfather’s Tennessee Whiskey for more than four years. It is being distilled on their Nashville site and is expected on store shelves sometime this fall.
“Prior to Prohibition, Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery was also known as ‘Old No. 5’ because it was registered distillery number 5 in the state of Tennessee,” says Charlie. “It’s something we’re super proud of and the federal government recognized that fact.”
The brothers were given a historic designation of “DSP TN 5” for their new whiskey which stands for “Distilled Spirits Plant Tennessee 5.”
Through the years of hard work, the brothers remain grateful for the community’s support and say they would not have succeeded without Nashville’s help.
“As far as what Nashville has to do with this, it’s everything,” said Charlie. “There’s no way we could do this anywhere else. Nashville has been so supportive of us and the community has just lifted us up and made everything possible.”
The brothers saw a huge return on their investment in early May 2019 when Constellation Brands, a Fortune 500 company that owns alcohol labels like Svedka, Robert Mondavi, Corona and Modelo, announced it had bought a controlling interest in Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery.
The company had initially made a minority investment in the distillery in 2016. It significantly increased that investment this year.