The Alcohol Professor: "Keeping it in the Family"
How the Nelson brothers resurrected Greenbrier Distillery outside of Nashville and fight to maintain the definition of Tennessee Whiskey
Last Christmas season, a friend who hails from Georgia, and had just returned from visiting family, brought a bottle of Belle Meade Bourbon to a Christmas gathering in Queens. Though the host had been generous with his whiskey offerings and the real booze drinkers few, the Belle Meade was empty within what seemed like only an hour or so. I was disappointed to find out this wonderful nectar was only available in parts of the South (now also California and Texas), but maybe that’s better for my liver.
It turns out that Belle Meade, the first post-Prohibition offering from Nelson’s Greenbrier Distillery in Tennessee, has a fascinating past, and a very promising and exciting future. Brothers Charlie and Andy Nelson only recently discovered that their great-great-great grandfather, Charles Nelson, owned and operated one of the biggest and most successful distilleries in the country prior to losing it all in the so-called “Noble Experiment” (luckily he had a prosperous banking business, among other things, to fall back on). But it wasn’t until the brothers were well into adulthood, (up till then Charlie used his gift for languages to travel the world and bartend; Andy worked as a film editor) that they fully became aware, serendipitously, of the scope of what had been the family business.
Once they did, they knew this was their true calling. It turns out a lot of information about the distillery exists in public and private archives. So Charlie and Andy set about researching all they could about the distillery, learning the ropes of distilling, and using original recipes as guides, resurrecting the once shuttered business for new generations.
As they got more involved in the TN distiller scene, they also found themselves engaged in local industry politics. As we covered in the past, there is a movement, prompted by Big Whiskey brand portfolios, (which, it should be mentioned, we at Alcohol Professor have and will continue to support, as this is a journalistic report, after all), to change the legislation defining TN Whiskey and how its character can be maintained. This is a blow to smaller brands who rely on the Tennessee Whiskey label on their products to advertise certain levels of production style, quality and provenance, otherwise, well, it’s just “whiskey.” Furthermore, if this initiative is successful, what’s to stop it from affecting other American Whiskey categories such as bourbon?
Via Skype, I recently spoke to the Nelson brothers about their astonishing family discovery, what’s next for them and their position in the fight to preserve the standards of TN Whiskey.
(L-R) Andy and Charlie Nelson
Amanda Schuster: I heard you guys are in the process of making a TN Whiskey recipe. Can you talk about that?
Charlie: Charles Nelson, our triple great grandfather, produced about 30 different labels, Belle Meade Bourbon was one of those, but his signature brand was his Greenbrier Tennessee Whiskey. And we’ve got that original recipe and that’s what we’re going to be focusing primary production on in our facility here in Nashville.
AS: When will that be ready, do you think?
Andy: We’re going to be ready to distill probably within the next three months. It’s kind of in flux with construction. Until that’s done, nothing is set in stone.
AS: As it were.
Andy: Ha! Right. And a few months after we get distilling [on the Greenbrier] we should have tour and tasting rooms ready.
AS: I was reading a bit about how you discovered that you came from a whiskey-making family, so if you hadn’t learned about this till relatively later in your lives, how were you able to find the family recipes?
Andy: From the moment we figured this all out, it was nonstop archives, old family tales, getting stories from family members and then residents of Greenbrier, the town, who had been there forever and maybe had family members who worked at the distillery. A lot of it was digging online and visiting the state and county archives. Finding old artifacts.
AS: It must have been exciting seeing all the layers unfold to help you put this together.
Charlie: Out of the 30 different labels or so that Charles Nelson produced we found a handful of different recipes from back in the day, some came from old newspaper articles, things that even had the mashbill percentage…
AS: Oh, that’s lucky!
Charlie: … yeah. Old documents that said things like how many bushels of grain he was using for each mash, that sort of thing. So it wasn’t all just like ‘here’s the recipe’ a lot of it was that we had to do some figuring. ‘Ok, there were 100 bushels of corn used here and then 20 bushels of wheat…’ So we had to sort of back in to some of them.
AS: I also read that you found a couple of the original bottles. Did you open any to taste test, see if you got things right?
Andy: Well, the first bottles we found were empty, though it was exciting enough to see our name on the label and see those bottles existed. [Holds up bottle.]
AS: Ahhh! Look at that! So cool! Wow, and so well preserved!
Andy: Yeah, until the last 2 or 3 years I guess we hadn’t seen a bottle with any liquid in it.
Charlie: But our great uncle has one, and our cousin has one, and some other collectors. But we haven’t tasted it.
the original distillery in Greenbrier
Andy: I mean, I would love to taste it… For one thing, the cork is very old and might crumble into the whiskey. So we have to get one of those [cork extracting devices] to take it out properly. But also, there’s that mystery. There’s something mysterious and sacred about it that I have struggled with. Maybe it isn’t time yet.
AS: Was there anything that surprised you as you uncovered these pieces of the puzzle – these documents, etc.?
Andy: Almost everything, really! Because growing up we knew a little bit about it, but we didn’t honestly know if it was a legal distillery, I mean, it could have been a moonshine operation. But when we first saw that historical marker [20 miles outside of Nashville, 8 years ago with Charlie and their parents, who went to get meat from a respected local butcher for a gathering, and found it when they stopped to get gas] that said ‘Nelson’s Greenbrier Distillery – producers of the finest TN Whiskeys and fruit brandies,’ etc. It was kind of a shock to us because we didn’t know it had been big enough to get a historical marker! Greenbrier is a pretty small town, maybe two or three stoplights… on what is now known as Old Distillery Road [formerly Longbranch Road]. When we got to the butcher, he told us to look across the street and we saw the old barrel warehouse still standing, and a grain house behind that sitting over the creek, and that the creek was being fed by this original spring, there’s a springhouse still standing, and the original spring is still running! We drank from the spring, of course, and that’s when we knew what we had to do. It was at the Greenbrier Historical Society that we started to find bottles like the one we showed you, and other documents with the Nelson name on it, and that was when we looked at each other and knew what we are here to do. That’s when we found out how big it was – one of the biggest distilleries in the country, certainly the state.
Another thing that I found amazing was what you could get away with to advertise in the newspaper. There’s one ad that says something like, ‘the finest and the purest in the universe.’ That’s such an awesome claim, but…
And then there was the discovery about how much they made. Multiple TN Whiskeys, multiple ryes, different bourbons, corn whiskeys, brandies and a few different gins, and it turns out Charles was one of the first to produce an American style gin.
Charlie: Charles Nelson’s American Gin.
AS: Do you have plans to resurrect these other products?
Andy: Eventually. It will be a little ways down the line. When we have enough inventory and can experiment, expand that portfolio as much as possible. Of course 150 or so years ago this stuff could just be made and we are experimenting and learning the trade… I mean, there are hillbillys up in the mountains who can do this, it shouldn’t be that complicated.
AS: Tell me a bit about this business with the Tennessee Whiskey legislation and how you guys are involved.
Andy: Where we stand is we are in favor of keeping the law as is. We recognize that TN Whiskey is… the laws that make a bourbon a bourbon, plus made only in the state of TN and undergoing charcoal mellowing and including aging in unused, charred oak barrels. The sticking point for this [possible change in] legislation was the use of these barrels [being able to age in used barrels]. One of the main reasons we are so in favor of keeping the current law, using new barrels, is that it was Charles Nelson, along with George Dickel, ironically enough [Dickel Whiskey is owned by Diageo, one of the companies who are in favor of the change, along with Brown-Forman] who back in the late 1800s went to the state legislature to request that TN Whiskey have a set of standards to differentiate it from Bourbon. So our family has a large part in actually creating what TN Whiskey is known as today. So given that history and heritage and everything, it’s why we’re doing this. We want to keep that alive and not dilute the brand equity to what TN Whiskey has been built up as, not only nationwide, but worldwide. Charlie, you want to chime in on anything else?
Charlie: Yeah, that’s a big part of it. Also, just keeping the standards is very important! The standards aren’t that high, yet it’s a big challenge getting into the business and into the industry, in general. But new barrels, made in TN, charcoal mellowed, 51% corn, that’s not too much to ask. Aging in used barrels doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll create an inferior product, but it makes it a lot easier to come out with an inferior product… It’s a slippery slope. If you are allowed to use used barrels and call it ‘TN Whiskey’, there are a lot of people in the [so-called] moonshine game who could just run their unaged whiskey through a barrel for 10 minutes and call it ‘TN Whiskey’. I think that would be detrimental to the whole category. Lowering the standards would lower the public’s perception of quality and undermine consumer confidence.
AS: How close are they to making a decision? I heard things were on hold for a while.
Andy: It was put to ‘summer study’ which, for now, is a win for us… In a lot of cases it will just kind of die there because they just don’t want to address the issue anymore. But if it does get picked up, I don’t even really know what ‘summer study’ is supposed to mean, it could be another year before it comes up officially. We don’t have our own legislative team. The people who are kind of on our side of this argument [Jack Daniels, btw is one of them] and do have that power are in a lot of ways taking the reins on that. We’re supporting them and throwing as much weight as we can behind it. But we are our own company, we’ve got one other employee… We have a lot of stuff to take care of in the interim.
It was tough to hear the opposition claim ‘Oh, the little guys are behind us..’
Charlie: Well, we as ‘the little guy,’ obviously need to speak up because we are not behind you.
Andy: The TN Distillers’ Guild, which is newly formed, took the position of not being in favor of the change. That says quite a bit in itself.
I mean, have some pride! What are the two things that come out of TN? Music and whiskey. If you’re allowing your state to dilute one of those things, it’s kind of like, ‘yeah, whatever.’
AS: Finally, if you could have a drink with your great-great-great grandfather Charles, what would that be like? What would you ask him or say to him about what you are doing now?
Charlie: A LOT of things…
Andy: OK, for example, his obituary talked about what an amazing man he was by all accounts, not just as a business man, but as a person, there’s this example I like to site, ‘He was a fair and honest man…
Charlie: ‘If a man would work for 50 dollars a week but he was worth 100, Charles Nelson would pay him what he was worth and not what he would take.’
He had a heart for charity, he was known to give to things that were known as ‘good for the heart of Nashville.’ Things like Nashville’s first music school was established by him. TN School for the Blind was established by one of his daughters. One of his sons established a medical school that was the first African American medical college, in Nashville. So amazing things that not only he did, but that he instilled in his children… I mean, for any white Southern person pre-1900 to establish ideas of racial equality is pretty amazing.
And when he died, his wife Louisa ran the distillery and was one of the only women to do so. That’s pretty impressive – a woman running a company pre-1900, a woman from the South, in a male-dominated industry, not just a whiskey company, but one of the largest in the country… that’s crazy!
Andy: I’d just be fascinated to absorb his knowledge and spirit, I guess. To me it’s one of those things you can’t learn from taking a class, or learn from something on paper. You meet someone and you gain their knowledge by being around them.