Prohibition: 100 Years Later
In a way, it seems far-fetched to even conceive of a time when liquor was illegal, especially considering that you could call the cocktail as American an invention as baseball, jazz, and the world wide web. But it actually happened, and it was exactly 100 years ago. Our short and storied history as a country has plenty of triumphs and tragedies, but it’s never had a period as dry as 1920-1933. As you might be able to surmise, The Prohibition’s effects rippled across the United States, but it certainly had a disastrous effect on the liquor industry, with few distillers surviving the draught, including ours.
Everyone’s heard of the nationwide Prohibition, but Tennessee got the jump on the rest of the country with a statewide prohibition in 1909—a good 11 years before the nation adopted the practice. We’ll just politely cite this as one of the many reasons we call Tennessee the “Buckle of the Bible Belt.” Although Prohibitionists had good intentions, it’s safe to say a century later that the intended outcome of banning liquor was not achieved. But hey, hindsight’s 20/20, right?
By the time statewide Prohibition rolled into Tennessee, our founder Charles Nelson had passed. Before his death, he handed off responsibility of the distillery to his highly capable wife, Louisa. At the time, the distillery was humming—cranking out somewhere around 2 million bottles a year. That’s a lot of whiskey, especially when you consider the size of the population and its means of transportation (Ford’s Model T didn’t come out until 1913). And Nelson’s closest competitor was only doing 6% of the business we were doing, making it one of the largest distillers in the nation. So when Prohibition hit, it hit hard.
Unfortunately, Prohibition left Louisa no choice but to close the doors of the distillery, ceasing all operations. Ultimately, the property was sold and what was once the most productive distillery in Tennessee was dismantled. The grain house and barrel warehouse still stand today, and the property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places; however, any remnant of the original distillery has faded. That is until 2006, long after the grip of Prohibition loosened.
At the turn of this century, two brothers Andy and Charlie Nelson visited Greenbrier, Tennessee where they happened upon something curious: a historical marker with their name on it. They had always heard tall tales of a family business in the small town, but the details had always been a bit hazy. As they began to ask around the town, they were told by the locals that their great great great granddad had built the warehouse that still stands today. They even met the curator of the Greenbrier Historical Society who had two bottles of the original Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey. From that point, there was only one way forward: Andy and Charlie would revive their family’s distillery.
And now here we are: planted firmly in Tennessee, just a few miles up the road from the original distillery, making barrels and barrels of Tennessee Whiskey using the original recipe. We even celebrate repeal day every year. So next time December 5th rolls around, come toast the end of Prohibition with us.