Nelson's Green Brier Distillery Shows The Way to Resurrect a Whiskey Brand - The Whiskey Wash

Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery Shows The Way to Resurrect a Whiskey Brand

Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery is a name in Tennessee whiskey folklore which, while dormant for some time, has still played a pivotal role in shaping that state’s distilling culture. It died off around the time of Prohibition, but a few generations later, two members of the Nelson family decided – after a bit of a random encounter – to bring it back to life.

These two family members, Andy and Charlie Nelson, are the great-great grandsons of Charles Nelson, who emigrated from Germany at age 15 in 1850. His travels in the U.S. eventually brought him to Tennessee, where he opened his own distillery. By 1885, it was selling almost 380,000 gallons of Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey per year.

The brothers Nelson, having recently revived the distillery and releasing both sourced and in-house whiskey, are looking to carry the family distilling name onto future generations of drinkers. To learn more about what’s going on, we recently sat with Charlie Nelson at Tales of the Cocktail. Note this interview is edited for clarity and brevity.

Nelson's Green Brier

Some of the distillery’s Belle Meade offerings. (image via Steve Coomes)

The Whiskey Wash: Tell us a little bit about the history of the Green Brier Distillery.

Charlie Nelson: So the distillery dates back to my triple-great grandfather, Charles Nelson, who was born in Germany in 1835, actually on the Fourth of July, which is a fact that I love. He came over to America in 1850 with his family and unfortunately, his father had the family’s fortune in gold sewn into his clothing and was ultimately knocked overboard and didn’t make it. So the family ended up arriving in New York with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Charles, at 15, took over as man of the family; he made soap and candles in New York; was a butcher in Cincinnati; and then, before the start of the Civil War, moved to Nashville in 1858 and started a wholesale grocery business where he was one of the first to bottle and sell whiskey, rather than selling it by the barrel or in a jug.

He realized that the demand for his whiskey far exceeded his supply because it was a lot easier for people to walk away with a bottle rather than a 500 pound barrel or, you know, 30 pound jug or something. So he bought the distillery, got a patent for distillation, greatly expanded the production capacity, and became one of the largest distilleries in the country as well as the largest in Tennessee.

It was known as “Old Number Five” because it was registered distillery number five in Tennessee, and we’re really fortunate that the federal government recognized that fact and gave us an historic designation of DSP, distill spirit plant, TN, Tennessee, five. He produced the original Tennessee whiskey, which we are producing today from his recipe, Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey. He had about 30 different labels. He had multiple Tennessee whiskeys, multiple bourbons, corn whiskeys, rye whiskeys, a malt whiskey, apple brandy, peach brandy, even gin.

Just as an example, in 1885, he was selling over 380,000 gallons a year, which is nearly two million bottles throughout the U.S. and internationally. We have records of it being all over the U.S., Paris, France, Spain, even as far as the Philippines. He died in 1891. His wife, Louisa took over as the only woman to run the distillery. Then in 1909, state-wide prohibition hit Tennessee, forcing them to close their doors.

By the way, out of those 30 labels, there were a few that he produced in conjunction with other companies, one of which was Belle Meade. So he produced that in conjunction with this company called the Sperry, Wade & Company, where the Sperry, Wade & Company was essentially doing the distilling, and Charles was doing the aging, blending, and bottling. We used pretty much that original label.

Growing up, my brother and I didn’t really know about the distillery. We knew the story of the family coming over from Germany, and then gold and everything like that, but didn’t really believe that story. Didn’t even fully believe it until four or six months ago when this lady, Dory Billsnack, who is a relative, reached out sending an email with a copy of this article from the New York Herald from 1850 talking about the journey over. It turns out he wasn’t just knocked overboard. He was actually being ferried on a little dinghy because the Helena Sloman, the ship he was on, was going down. There was a ship, the Devonshire, rescuing and ferrying passengers across. That boat capsized.

Anyway, it turned out to be even more tragic than we knew. Also, it was true, which is great because I thought it was just a story that my dad made up. But anyway, about 11 years ago, my dad invited me and my brother to go with him to pick up our quarter of a cow. On our way there, running low on fuel, we stopped to fill up and at the gas station there was this historical marker that said: Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery.

Going to the butcher, he showed us across the street to this old barrel warehouse still standing. Then he sent us to this nearby historical society where there were two original bottles with my name on it. And I just fell in love. Been working or resurrecting the company ever since.

We couldn’t afford to buy all the equipment upfront, which was our plan. Then we were able to borrow some money, putting up everything as collateral to start sourcing barrels. Then we were able to raise money and build our own distillery.

TWW: What are some of the milestones in your recent history?

Nelson: We just recently launched our Nelson’s First 108 Tennessee whiskey on the Fourth of July because that was Charles Nelson’s birthday. We called it Nelson’s First 108 because it had been 108 years since we shut down, and we happened to have 108 barrels of this Tennessee whiskey in 30 gallon barrels that had been aged for a little over two years.

Previous to that, last year, we launched [for our Belle Meade sourced bourbons] our Madeira Cask Finish and our Cognac Cask Finish, which have done really well. Then, maybe six or ten months before that, we had started doing single barrels. Then, a year and a half ago, or two years ago, we did our first Sherry Cask Finish.

TWW: Talk a little about sourcing some of your whiskey.

Nelson: When we first got into this business, we didn’t know about sourcing or contract production or anything like that. Our original plan was raise a bunch of money, build out our whole distillery on the original property. Start laying down barrels, and not sell anything until it’s ready.

Unfortunately, being fresh out of college, barely of drinking age, just before the recession, and then trying to raise money during the recession [was no good]. Nobody would invest. So it was ultimately by somewhat of a survival tactic to be able to do the sourcing and contract production.

TWW: So with your Belle Meade bourbons…you guys have been doing some cask finishing. Talk a little bit about why.

Nelson: It is a very competitive market. Based on the fact that when we first launched our Belle Meade bourbon, it was during a time where sourcing was a very hot topic, and there was a lot of talk about it. People would say: Okay, all you’re doing is just like buying whole product and slapping your label on it, which is not the case. We spent a year, a year and a half basically sampling different barrels and determining what ultimately was going to go in our Classic.

But we wanted to do something a little bit different as well to further set ourselves apart from what other people are doing. We did a lot of experimenting. The first thing that we settled on was finishing in our sherry casks. Taking a little inspiration from what’s going on in Scotland. Also, something that is really delicious. We’ve experimented with a bunch of other projects. We basically only release things that at least my brother and I agree on, which is a rare occasion.