The Nelson's Green Brier Heritage
Charles Nelson was born July 4, 1835 in Hagenow, a small town in the Mecklenburg-Schwerin state of northern Germany. He was the eldest of six children whose father, John Philip Nelson, owned a soap and candle factory. When Charles was 15, his father decided he wanted to move his family to America for a better life. He sold his soap and candle factory, converted all of the family’s earthly possessions to gold and had special clothing made to hold all of that gold on his person during the journey. In late October of 1850, he gathered his family and boarded the Helena Sloman to set sail for America. As fate would have it, on November 19 of that year, intense storms and gale force winds sent many of the nearly 180 passengers overboard. John Philip Nelson was one of those unfortunate souls and weighed down by the family fortune, he sank directly to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Luckily, the rest of the family arrived safely in New York, but with only the clothes on their backs, and 15 year-old Charles found himself man of the house.
The Move to Nashville
Penniless yet determined, Charles and his brother began doing the only thing they knew how to do: making soap and candles. After saving some money, the Nelson family moved west, settling in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was there that Charles, merely 17 years of age, entered the butcher business and acquainted himself with a number of fellow craftsmen who educated him in the art of producing and selling distilled spirits, particularly whiskey.
Several years later, just before the start of the Civil War, Charles set out for Nashville seeking a fresh start and another American dream took tenuous root. He opened a grocery store which flourished from sales of his three best-selling products: coffee, meat and whiskey. The quality of both his products and service quickly built Charles a reputation that went unmatched in Nashville’s merchant circles. His honesty and fair dealings brought about great prosperity for his business as well as an elevated social status in the community. Very quickly however, Charles realized that the demand for his whiskey far exceeded his supply, revealing to him the opportunity to focus solely on whiskey. So he sold the grocery business. Legend has it the blend of coffee was then brought to the Maxwell House Hotel in downtown Nashville, where patrons would later proclaim it as “good to the last drop”. His butcher stayed in business and the store soon grew into a successful Nashville-based grocery chain that is still in business today.
Beginnings of a Distillery
Charles bought the distillery that was making his whiskey in Greenbrier, TN, and a patent for improved distillation. He expanded the production capacity in order to keep up with demand. With this expansion, Nelson was not only creating more jobs, he was making a name for Tennessee Whiskey. By 1885, there were hundreds of whiskey distilleries in Tennessee, but only a handful were producing significant volume. That year, Charles Nelson sold nearly 380,000 gallons, that's around 2 million bottles, of Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey. In comparison other well-known brands had a maximum production capacity of just 23,000 gallons at that time. Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey was in such demand that it was being sold in markets ranging from Jacksonville, FL to San Francisco, CA to Paris, France, to Moscow, Russia, and the Philippines. This reach of distribution was possible in part because Charles was one of the first to sell whiskey in bottles rather than selling it by the jug or the barrel. The distillery, which was commonly known as “Old Number Five” due to the fact that it was registered distillery number five and was located in the fifth tax district, became a favorite stop of federal regulators and tax inspectors due to the warmth and hospitality shown to them by Charles and his employees. It is safe to say that by introducing the category of Tennessee Whiskey to the world and offering a superior product, Charles Nelson had indeed become a household name but after decades of great struggle and brilliant triumph, Charles Nelson passed away on December 13, 1891. His wife Louisa assumed control of the business, becoming one of the only women of her time to run a distillery.
In 1909, statewide Prohibition was adopted in Tennessee. This forced Louisa to discontinue operations and Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery closed its doors. The property in Greenbrier was sold and as the years went by the once great distillery was dismantled and fell into disrepair. Presently, the grain house and a barrel warehouse stand, the spring still runs, the property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and descendants of distillery employees recount stories passed down to them about how their ancestors once proudly made the whiskey that made Greenbrier world famous.
On a hot summer day in 2006, Bill Nelson invited his two sons, Andy and Charlie, to go see a butcher in Greenbrier, Tennessee. As the three men drove to Greenbrier, they recalled the stories that had been passed down to them about the family whiskey business that had been located in the small town.
When the trio arrived and started asking questions about the old Nelson Distillery, the butcher, Chuck, could hardly contain his excitement. “Look across the street over there,” Chuck exclaimed. “Your granddaddy built that warehouse. This street is Distillery Road, you know, and that spring, it’s never stopped running. It’s as pure as pure can be.”
Bill, Andy and Charlie eagerly walked over to explore the land that was once home to the nation’s largest producer and supplier of Tennessee Whiskey. After quenching their thirst with the crisp, cool spring water, Chuck pointed them in the direction of the Greenbrier Historical Society.
Here, the Nelsons met with the curator, who revealed her most prized possessions: two original bottles of Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey.
For a moment, time stood still.
It was love at first sight. Charlie and Andy stared at the perfectly preserved bottles and then looked back at one another, knowing what the other was thinking: “This is our destiny.”
With sincere conviction, they made a pact to bring the family whiskey business back to life.
After three years of research, planning and hard work, the Nelsons re-formed the business that had closed exactly 100 years earlier in 1909 during Prohibition. With the spirit in their blood, Charlie and Andy followed their hearts, devoting their lives to resurrecting Nelson’s Green Brier Whiskey and producing top-quality product, appreciated by aficionados everywhere.
About Charlie & Andy Nelson
Brothers Andy Nelson and Charlie Nelson have always had a lot in common. Both graduated from Loyola Marymount with degrees in the Humanities concentrating on Philosophy; both are history buffs, true southern gentlemen and proud of their family roots. But when they set out to resurrect Nelson's Green Brier Distillery, founded in the 1800s by their great-great-great grandfather Charles Nelson, the boys realized their kinship ran deeper than blood. They both had spirit pulsing through their veins. So in their mere 20s, the Nelson brothers have set on a grand journey—not just to make and sell whiskey—but to rebuild a business that helped bring the term 'Tennessee Whiskey' to America and Europe. Through researching, seeking capital, crafting brands from Charles Nelson's original recipes and putting bottles of their small-batch bourbon on shelves, they are the essence of the American dream and spirit.