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.

Charlie: I had a semester of college left when we discovered the history of the distillery. I had gotten a grant to study cave paintings in Spain, Italy, and France. But that grant was only for a couple thousand bucks. That didn’t seem like enough money to spend in Europe for a couple months, especially considering the flight was like a thousand bucks on its own. So, I was in Nashville trying to make a little bit of extra money before this trip.

It’s always funny to me how you can be on one path and then — often coincidentally — find yourself going a completely different direction. For you guys, it was a cow that changed your lives.

Charlie: Our dad went in with three of his buddies to buy a cow worth of meat from a butcher up in Greenbrier, Tennessee. He invited us to go with him to pick up our quarter of a cow worth of meat from this butcher. We were like, ‘yeah sure.’ You know, why not?

On our way there, we stopped to fill up. At the gas station, there’s this historical marker that said, “Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, one mile east on Long Branch Road. Charles Nelson opened the Green Briar Distillery.”

We’re like, “holy crap, that’s crazy! What is this?” When we got to the butcher — who also happened to live a mile east — we asked him if he knew anything about the old distillery. He was like, “well, hell, look across the street!” We did and saw this old barrel warehouse still standing with the original springs still running. We drank from the spring. Then he sent us to this nearby historical society where there were a couple of original bottles with our name on ’em. You know, we looked at each other and we’re like, ‘this is what we’re here to do.’

So, from that moment on we’ve been working on resurrecting the company.

So, before that fateful trip, the distillery was just a bit of a family legend, right?

Andy: It really was kinda like a family legend. We had heard the story of our triple great-grandfather coming over to the US from Germany. That was pretty crazy in of itself. It was so crazy, we weren’t even sure we believed it. We knew that there was some sort of whiskey distillery in our family’s past. We didn’t know how big it was. We didn’t know if it was even legal. We didn’t really know where Greenbrier was because it’s still such a small town, you know. There were a bunch of unknowns, but we had some sort of inkling that there was something back there that had happened.

What happened next?

Andy: We had no concept of how to start a distillery. We didn’t have any experience. We didn’t grow up in the business. So, we started just creating relationships and trying to network with people.

We thought who would know how to do this? Who can help us out? So one of the first steps was literally just knocking on doors and going to distilleries around this area. Fortunately, middle Tennessee and Kentucky, within a radius of a three-hour drive, there’s plenty of history and plenty of distilleries around here.

So you literally just started asking people? And the distillers were cool with that?

Andy: We ended up talking a bunch of people, saying, “Hey, this is our thing that we’re trying to do. What’s your advice?” One of the really cool things was that a lot of the people we talked to were kinda old folks who had been in the business for a long time. They had an appreciation for the history of it. Some of them actually told us, “You know, look, I’m happy to talk to you guys and give you advice because I can appreciate what you’re doing.” They realized that we weren’t necessarily just these two young dudes trying to make a buck off of this business. There was something more in it for us. It’s our family name.

Charlie: Essentially, Nelson’s Green Brier was like the original Tennessee whiskey company. A lot of the production guys have a deep love and appreciation of the industry and the history of it. When they sort of realized that what we’re trying to do is honor that and the heritage of our family’s distilling past, people got really excited about it. I think that people really just thought that was cool.

Was there anyone that took you guys under their wing, or was it more just pointers over the phone here and there?

Andy: One guy we met was Dave Pickerell, the former master distiller from Maker’s Mark. He ended up being kind of the driving force behind letting us in and teaching us about what to do and how to do it.

So, how do you start a distillery from, basically, scratch?

Charlie: Once we discovered the old property and everything, I took my little trip and then came back and took one business class in my last semester of college. Then, as soon as I graduated, I moved back to Nashville.

Andy and I were both working other jobs while spending a lot of time in state archives and county archives and just going through all kinds of old newspaper articles, finding tax documents, hearing stories from people in the distilling industry, and also in the Greenbrier and Robertson County area.

Also, this was before the sort of ‘craft distilling’ or ‘micro-distilling’ boom happened. At the time, we didn’t know about small distilleries. We had no intention of building a small distillery, you know. There were about a dozen whiskey distilleries in the country at the time. George Dickel was the smallest. They were doing a couple hundred thousand cases a year. And now it’s crazy ’cause there are over a thousand distilleries and more coming.

It’s really awesome that you guys got so much help from the community. So, when you knew you were opening up shop, did you try to get back some of your family properties?

Charlie: We did not have any of the original property in the family anymore. Back in the day, Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery was one of the largest in the country. It was by far the largest in Tennessee. So, it actually had three separate facilities — an office, warehouse, and bottling facility in downtown Nashville, a big time production facility in Greenbrier, and then another office, warehouse, and bottling facility in Louisville, Kentucky. We have plans for all of those places in the future.

When you guys started back up did you have original recipes to draw from?

Charlie: Back in the day, Charles Nelson produced about 30 different labels. He had multiple Tennessee whiskeys, bourbons, corn whiskeys, rye whiskeys, a malt whiskey, brandy, even gin. We were able to find a couple original recipes in our research basically coming from newspaper articles. Long story short, a journalist took a tour of the distillery and the production guy told him the step-by-step process. “First, we grind up 103 bushels of corn. Cook it to 212 degrees. Then cool it down. Add in bushels of wheat…” and so forth. The journalist published that. We actually got a couple different mash bills that way. And that’s what we wanted to start producing originally.


Charlie: Nobody would invest. You know, we were fresh out of college, barely of drinking age. Nobody really trusted us to run a business. We had no experience. We spent almost three years trying to raise money to build the full distillery and lay down barrels of our Green Brier Tennessee whiskey.

How did you turn that money corner and get started?

Charlie: After banging our heads against the wall trying to raise money for years, we found through our research that one of the labels that Charles Nelson produced was Belle Meade Bourbon, which he produced in conjunction with another company. We realized we could maybe get started without having to buy all the equipment and build out the distillery up front. As a family, we put up literally everything we owned to personally guarantee a loan to get started sourcing barrels and working with a contract distillery to create our own unique blend for Belle Meade.

How long did it take for you to land on a blend you liked?

Charlie: We spent about a year, year and a half working on what we wanted that taste profile to be. Ultimately, we wanted it to be a high rye content bourbon, because historically distilleries generally were using a higher rye content. We launched that in March of 2012. Then, as soon as we got that on the market, we were able to start raising some money to build out our own distillery. We were able to start taking some production in-house and working on our Green Brier Tennessee whiskey recipe.

Now, we are still doing some contract production. We’re also working on building another much larger facility in Robertson County — the same county where the original distillery was — with the goal of taking 100% of production in house.

You got your feet solidly under you. You know what you’re doing. How does it feel to finally be doing what you set out over a decade ago to accomplish?

Andy: It feels great. There’s not doubt about that. It’s very, very incredibly exciting to finally be releasing a version of our Tennessee whiskey with Nelson’s First 108 this July*. This is something that we’ve been working towards basically since that first day we discovered everything 11 years ago.

Let’s get into the actual whiskey a little bit! Your White Whiskey, is that like a White Dog distillate or does it touch oak?

Andy: It’s in some ways a combination of both. We do call it our White Whiskey. It is our Tennessee whiskey mash bill that runs through the charcoal mellowing process, just as our Tennessee whiskey does. Then we cut it down to 91 proof and put it in the bottle. Tennessee whiskey technically and by law has to touch oak. What we’ve done, interestingly, is we made our charcoal mellowing tank out of an oak whiskey barrel.

So you’re letting it touch the oak during the mellow. That’s a clever workaround.

Yeah, the distillate is touching oak simultaneously as it’s going through the Lincoln County Process of charcoal mellowing. So it simultaneously becomes whiskey and Tennessee whiskey in that one process.

Let’s talk casks. First, you don’t see Madeira being used too often. Are you guys experiencing any trouble getting barrels from Europe?

Andy: When we saw that it was kinda growing over here, the cooperages were saying, ‘You know, there’s gonna be a shortage pretty soon.’ So we made a deal with them and locked down a source for future years to come. So, yeah, we haven’t had too much trouble. Fortunately, we got in early enough.

You started finishing with sherry in the beginning, right?

Andy: The sherry cask was the first one that we started with. At that point, there weren’t a lot of other American whiskeys doing the finishing technique or anything like that.

Yeah, it’s very Irish/Scottish.

Andy: It’s very, prevalent over there. So we figured let’s try it. We were able to pretty easily get some good sherry casks. The cognac casks were next, because we just wanted to have something new. Then we decided to make a whole line of our special cask finish products with the Cognac casks from France, the sherry casks from Spain, and, now, the Madeira casks from Portugal.

These types of casks aren’t that widely used. How have people reacted?

Andy: It’s really interesting hearing everybody’s reactions. I have not found a single one of the three cask finishes we do that’s clearly everybody’s favorite. I think we did a good job in making them differentiated enough so that everyone has their own favorite.

What was the biggest obstacle you guys had to overcome to get to where you are?

Charlie: In my opinion, the biggest thing is raising money. Kind of along that line was, you know, being such young inexperienced guys. Things have changed a little bit now. But, you know, we’re still some of the youngest guys in the industry. When we first started on this I was 21 or 22. You look at a guy like Jimmy Russell who’s been in the industry, what? Fifty years? Sixty years? That’s what’s expected and respected.

I’ll give you an example. When we first discovered the history and that original site, we actually picked up the phone book — which I don’t even know if those exist anymore — and started calling around to distilleries. People would actually answer. I was talking to one guy. Everything was going well. I was telling him about the history and everything. Then I guess I said something that maybe gave away my age a little bit. He goes, “Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa, wait a second. How old are you?” I was like, “well, I’m 22, but I’ve got a lot of experience for a 22-year-old.” He said, “Why don’t you call me back in a few years?” Click.

Wow… That’s rough.

Charlie: I think that when raising money and on some of our first sales calls, people would project their opinions of us and of us being young and inexperienced on our business plan and on our product. I’ll never forget our very first sales call, where the guy told us, “The whiskey, it’s young. It’s hot. It could use a little more time.”

Andy: “It’s a little immature.”

Charlie: ‘Little immature.’ It was like, ‘dude you’re just talking us. Not the whiskey.’

Then six months later he came back and was like, “you know, I’m sorry. You guys must’ve come out with something new.” We said, “no, this is actually the exact same batch.”

Andy: And, now they’re one of our biggest supporters.

What barriers are you trying to break through now?

Charlie: At this point now, I think something that we’re seeing as a challenge is that there are a lot more competitors in the marketplace. We’ve been doing everything on shoestring budget for years. We’re very fortunate that we have a story that is true and authentic and that’s something that money can’t buy. There are a lot of other brands out there that have, you know, billionaire investors behind them or multi-multi-millionaires who can just throw tons of money around and get the attention of wholesalers and the consumers. We’re having to sort of cut through that clutter and try and just get our story out there with virtually no marketing and advertising budget while competing with other brands that have million dollar budgets.

How do you beat them at their own game without those deep pockets at your disposal?

Andy: I feel like a lot of it’s the mindset that you can never even imagine failure. You know, you just have this idea and say, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna do this.’ It doesn’t even cross your mind that it’s not possible. It feels great to be able to actually have this working out and growing, you know? This is something we’ve been working for and that’s the mindset that we’ve had to have.

*The Nelson brothers are releasing Nelson’s First 108 Tennessee Whiskey. This historic release will commemorate 108 years since prohibition shut down the family’s distilling business. The whiskey has been aged in 108 30-gallon barrels for two years and is the stepping stone to the roll out of their in-house four-year-old whiskey — which is coming soon. If you’re in Nashville this summer, make sure to check it out.