Charlie Nelson contacted me many years ago about finding out about his family’s involvement in the distilling industry before prohibition shut them down in 1910. He had heard how his family came over from Germany in the mid 19th century and the family patriarch, John Philip Nelson, had the family fortune in gold sewn into his suit for safe keeping. Unfortunately John Philip was washed overboard just before the ship sank and drowned with the family gold weighing him down. Young Charles was only 15 years old when they finally got to New York and had to go to work to support the family. He later moved to Cincinnati and worked as a butcher. By the late 1850s Charles Nelson had come to Nashville and started his own grocery business where he specialized in coffee, meat and whiskey. After the war, his business grew to the point that he purchased the distillery in Greenbrier, Tennessee that was supplying him with his whiskey and concentrated wholly on distilled spirits. They made a variety of products that included Tennessee whiskey, rye and corn whiskey, but also apple and peach brandies. The major brands were Nelson’s Green Brier and Belle Meade. When Tennessee prohibition shut them down in 1909, 11 years before national Prohibition took effect, Mida’s Criteria gave them an “A” ranking (value of $500,000-$600,000). By Comparison George Dickel had a Ranking pf “AA” (valiue $600,000-$750,000) and Jack Daniels had a ranking of “CCC” (value $150,000-$200,000). The remaining whiskey was eventually sold, but the family was pretty much out of the distilling industry after 1910.
Today the Nelson brothers, Charles and Andrew Nelson, have returned to the family business with a new Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery. It had been a century since their family made whiskey, but they were fortunate to find a magazine article that described a trip to the distillery prior to its closing. The article describes the making of whiskey and that allowed them to reproduce a mash bill from that era. This mash bill was a corn, wheat and barley malt recipe using the “Lincoln County” process of mellowing the new make whiskey through sugar maple charcoal before putting it into the barrel. I say it gave them “a mash bill” because the Green Brier distillery made many different types and styles of whiskey and brandy. They made rye whiskey, corn whiskey and a blended whiskey, so it’s possible even a corn/rye/malt recipe for their Tennessee whiskey was available for sale.
Today they are sourcing whiskey to put an aged product on the market under the Belle Meade brand and selling an unaged product using their corn/wheat/malt recipe under the Nelson’s Green Brier name that they are also aging in 53 gallon barrels. The Belle Meade is a straight Bourbon but they also have three different finished versions of Belle Meade. The first released is 9 years old Sherry cask finish. This was followed by Cognac and a Malmsey Madeira finished products. All three are excellent whiskeys with fruity notes from the finishing casks. The Nelson’s Green Brier “white Tennessee whiskey” is the unaged version of the whiskey they are laying down for their Tennessee whiskey in 53 gallon barrels. It is fruity whiskey with notes of buttered corn, peaches and sweet spice. The sample of 2 year old aged whiskey that I had the privilege to taste is coming along very well. The peach fruit is complimented with a nice vanilla and spice flavor leading into the typical Tennessee smoky, dry oak finish.
The Nelson brothers are putting out some excellent whisky today but they have plans for other products in the future. The founder Charles Nelson had a plethora of products and brands being produced at the distillery. The brothers are interested in producing a Tennessee whiskey made with a rye flavoring grain. They are interested in making a rye whiskey and maybe even a rye using the charcoal mellowing process. They are also interested in making apple and peach brandies. It will take time to put all of these plans into motion, but the brothers are passionate about distilling these products.
The modern distillery is in Nashville, not Greenbrier, Tennessee. It is a small operation with a hybrid still and a single barrel charcoal mellowing vat. The tour starts by taking you through a section where they have many historical images and articles on the wall that tells the Nelson family history. It then moves into the distillery proper where you learn a little about their mash bill and see the still and mellowing vat. Next is on to their warehouse area where they have aging whiskey as well as the sourced Bourbon being finished in the Sherry, Cognac and Madeira casks. The tour ends in the tasting room where you taste the unaged Tennessee whiskey, the sourced Bourbon and the Sherry cask finished Bourbon. An excellent tour that takes about an hour from start to finish. The gift shop has all of their products for sale as well as the normal T-shirts, caps and glassware found in all distillery gift shops.
If you find yourself in Nashville, Tennessee with some time on your hands, you should stop in at the Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery for a visit. You will not regret the time spent there.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller