These Brothers Brought Back America’s Biggest Pre-Prohibition Whiskey

The word ‘craft’ gets thrown around a lot these days. A craft beer or craft whiskey doesn’t mean a whole lot to a new generation of consumers coming up in the world. Those terms just don’t ring as true as they used to. They hit the ear like a Don Draper inspired ruse. What does ring true is the quality of the product and the story that comes along with it. We want to hear about why something is important or worth our dollar instead of a few Madison Avenue catchphrases.

Well, we have a story for you. And it’s about whiskey.

Back in 1850, a 15-year-old kid named Charles Nelson left Germany and crossed the chopping Northern Atlantic seas for America with his family. The trip was so perilous that 180 passengers were swept overboard during a storm, including John Nelson, who was carrying the family’s seed money for building a new life in the new world. Charles Nelson and his surviving family arrived in New York with only the clothes on their backs. By the end of the 1850s, Charles Nelson’s grocery in Nashville, Tennessee would be famous citywide for his great butchery, strong coffee, and excellent whiskey.

People loved Nelson’s whiskey so much, he left the grocery business behind and opened up Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in the small hamlet of Greenbrier just 20 miles up the road from Nashville. By 1885, Nelson’s distillery was producing 380,000 gallons of whiskey annually — the national average was closer to 23,000 gallons for the rest of the industry. They were a massive operation by any standard. Nelson’s brands were known from Paris to San Francisco and everywhere in between. Then Prohibition struck Tennessee, in 1909.

Nelson’s was forced to shutter their production facilities and had to move all their stock to their Lexington, Kentucky offices and warehouses. By 1915, they’d sold the last of their supply, sold off the land and buildings around Tennessee and Kentucky, and officially closed down the operations of America’s largest and most recognizable distilling operation. It wasn’t until 2006 that the company would start distilling again.

Andy and Charlie Nelson grew up hearing old family legends about a great-great-great grandpa who distilled in Tennessee. But those stories were more hearsay you’d catch at a family cookout; concrete facts seemed few and far between. Then one day, on a run out of Nashville to retrieve a side of beef, the brothers stumbled upon their ancestor’s old distillery in Greenbrier and it set their lives on a wholly new path. In the years since, they’ve revived the family trade and become two of the most renowned whiskey men in the country.

We got a chance to sit down with the Nelson brothers between batches to talk family, history, and what it takes to open up a distillery as a 20-something.

Can you tell us a little bit about where you guys were before you became distillers?
Andy: Well, we grew up here in Nashville. Our family’s been here for a long, long time. Then Charlie and I both went to college at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. I graduated in 2005 and right after college, I got into an internship at the Country Music Association here in Nashville. So I moved back home. After that, I started working at a software publishing company doing video editing. I ended up doing that for about six years.