Nelson's Green Brier Distillery
HOW THE DESCENDANTS OF ONE OF THE BIGGEST TENNESSEE DISTILLERIES ARE REVIVING THEIR GREAT GRANDFATHER’S BRAND
NASHVILLE SINCE BIRTH
Andy and Charlie Nelson didn’t intend on opening a distillery. But when a trip to the butcher led to a surprise discovery about their family history, it seemed like destiny was staring them in the face.
Andy and Charlie Nelson’s great-great-grandfather has a pretty wild story of his own. He emigrated to America from Germany in the 1800s. His father, who had all the family’s fortune in gold sewn into his clothing, drowned at sea during the journey. Charles, then 15, took over as the man of the family, working a variety of jobs. Before the Civil War, he moved to Nashville and began a grocery business. The three main products he sold were coffee (the delivery man eventually started Maxwell House), meat (the butcher started HG Hill food stores), and whiskey. Charles realized his demand excited his supply for whiskey, so he bought the distillery and became one of the largest distilleries in the country.
When he died in 1891, his wife Louisa took over running the distillery, until state-wide prohibition hit in 1909 and the family shipped their stores to Kentucky and quietly went about other businesses.
“What we had known of the distillery growing up was very little, but we did know some,” Andy says. Few of the details had made their way through the generations, and it wasn’t something either brother had given much thought. But one day in 2006, they stopped to get gas on the way to the butcher in Green Brier, TN, and at the corner of the gas station saw a historical marker that said Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery. “We knew there was somewhat of a whiskey business in Green Brier but we didn’t know whether it was legal, we didn’t know how big it was, we didn’t know where Green Brier was,” Andy says. “When we saw that, it was kind of like the hair on the back of our heads stood up.”
They drove on to the butcher’s house and asked him if he knew anything about the distillery. “He says, ‘I got something for ya, you’re standing on the old land of the distillery,’” they recall. “We looked across the street and saw this old barrel warehouse still standing, a grain house behind that, and then the original spring which was still running, and so of course we went and drank from the spring. It was this moment where it was like, oh wow, this was real.”
Further digging into the history and the area yielded a wealth of information about the business and their family history, including from a local historical society library. “There were these two original bottles of Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey, of course with our name on it,” they say. “We saw these bottles and that was kind of this struck by lightning moment.”
They didn’t know how they’d begin to do it, but both brothers knew they had to bring it back to life. Charles was just about to graduate and Andy had been working as a video editor; both had a passion for history and culture. They began the laborious process of business plans, raising capital, negotiating deals, and developing recipes. The new company launched in 2014 in Marathon Village, with strong roots in their heritage.
“We have a couple original recipes,” – Nelson’s First 108 is one. “We think okay, did they do this product back in the day, yes or no. If yes, how can we come as close to replicating that as possible. If no, then what’s the reason behind this.” The latter is what guided their new liqueur they’re developing in homage to Louisa, their triple great grandmother who ran the distillery, a whiskey-dominated business, at a time when women didn’t even have the right to vote.
They’re certainly making their ancestors proud. The whiskey has received national attention, and their mission has earned the respect of distillers young and old. And as the demographic of whiskey drinkers expands, their brand grows even more rapidly.
“It’s really exciting,” they say, “and much more fun for the whole thing.”
Learn more about the distillery here and schedule your visit to their location in Marathon Village.
Follow them @ngbdistillery