Bill Nelson is the sort of guy who would rather go a little out of his way to get what he likes. The sort of things you can’t get in a supermarket, even one in a town as big as Nashville. Bill and his two sons, who were both home from college on summer break, were driving out to the little town of Greenbrier to pick up their share of a beef cow that Bill had purchased along with another friend in Nashville. Bill was having a great day. It was a simple day. He would soon be eating locally raised beef and sipping fine Tennessee whiskey at home with his sons.
Greenbrier, as the crow flies, is only about 25 miles from the city center of Nashville, but its elevation and network of spring-fed creeks make it a cooler spot (even if only by a few degrees) and a popular place for wealthy city folks to keep summer houses. The lush woods, abundant shade, proximity to the city and the clean, flowing water also attracted another set of businessmen – distillers (both legitimate and… well, downright shady).
As Bill, Charlie and Andy arrived in town, they made a quick stop at a gas station on the town’s main drag and soon his simple day would be one he would remember forever. While Bill filled up the truck, Andy went inside to grab a cold drink and Charlie stretched his legs in the parking lot. In the corner of the lot, right by the stop sign, he spotted a historical marker erected by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, celebrating the location of “Nelson’s Greenbrier Distillery.” For most folks, the sound of their own name is like music, but this was a symphony. There was Charles Nelson, a young native of Nashville, standing in the parking lot of a gas station, just outside of his hometown, seeing his name “Charles Nelson” struck into an iron-and-enamel placard commemorating what was surely a family business that no one in his family had ever mentioned.
“Y’all need to see this!” he yelled across the lot to his brother and father.
They gathered around the sign and Bill recalled hearing a few stories about the family being in the whiskey business, but thought it might have just been rumor or tall-tales. They asked the gas station attendant about the sign, but he didn’t even know that it was in his lot.
A few miles down the road at the butcher’s house and shop, they asked about the distillery. The butcher’s family had been in the area since the early 19th century and he knew all about the Nelson’s and their namesake whiskey business. Once they loaded the half-steer into a big cooler in the back of Bill’s truck, the butcher gave them a tour of the old still site.
Coming down the hill and over a glass-clear stream was a six-inch steel pipe feeding into a large, brick cistern. A crack in the elevated pipeline spilled the cool water onto the rocky ground below. The brothers filled their hands and drank the water as the butcher explained that the distillery was located right where they stood and that the cistern was once the main water source for the whole town.
They walked the banks of the creek, staring in wonder at the clarity of the water. Even in the deepest spots you could easily see the rocky creek bed. A thick tangle of green briars extended in the cool shade from the sandy edge of the creek, across the forest floor to where the treeline met the mowed pasture. It was clear where this place and the distillery that still haunted it got its name.
A few hundred feet down the creek stood a brick basin that could have easily been a 200-gallon mash tub. On the north bank lay a stone structure that anchored a water wheel for the grain milling operation. A cypress and tin shed was downstream a bit further. In there, Charlie and Andy found barrel hoops and other evidence of liquor-related commerce.
About 100 yards north of the creek, a fifty-foot-tall rickhouse, built from sturdy timbers (almost certainly milled from the trees felled to clear the little pasture by the creek) and corrugated steel still stood as the largest remaining monument to the family business. The butcher explained that when Tennessee “went dry” twenty years before the rest of the nation followed suit, the family sold all its remaining inventory and the distillery closed for good. The old rickhouse was used to hang and age tobacco. With no whiskey to make and sell, the family moved back to Nashville and used the proceeds from the whiskey sell-off to finance a grocery and butchery businesses. The Nelsons thrived and their more recent business successes overshadowed their prior industry.
Whatever the conversation had been on the way out to Greenbrier was now of no consequence. The drive home was nothing but talk of the old family business and how to resurrect it. The frenzied search for historical confirmation continued with a visit to the Greenbrier Historical Society and calls to distant family members, each corroborating a different clue. The young Nelson sons felt a calling to abandon their plans of leaving their hometown to seek their fortunes elsewhere. For the first time in their adult lives they were determined to make their mark in Nashville and take their place in a family business that mostly everyone had long forgotten.
A few short years and many long nights later… after countless all-night sessions of planning and worrying, after devastating rejections from investors and bankers, and after nearly shelving the project for lack of outside interest, Charlie got a call from a banker who had told them no before. He was now with a new bank and the story of the Nelson family resurrecting the Greenbrier Distillery had taken on some traction. The deal was on.
Today the new Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery stands on Clinton Street in Downtown Nashville, just a few miles from where the family first sold their famous whiskey. The Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission even gave them the original license number (DSP5TN) stating that they considered the period of 1905 to 2015 just an “interruption” of the old distillery. They found original artwork and advertising for the Belle Meade and Green Brier whiskeys produced by their ancestors and even some of the original mash recipes.
Their main copper kettle still is named “Louisa” for their Great Grandmother who scandalously took over the whiskey-making business when her husband passed away in 1891. That still produces the bulk of the Tennessee Sour Mash whiskey that gets aged in charred oak barrels right there on Clinton Street. The copper still may have a vintage look, but the Nelson brothers, like the ancestors who patented a new filtration method for whiskey in the 19th century, are innovators as much as they are historians.
Noticing that many Scotch distilleries commonly use aging barrels that once contained other spirits, the brothers started experimenting with sherry, madeira and cognac casks for finishing. They even have a barrel resting that is on its third round of use in Nashville. When they bottled their whiskey from this particular vessel, they sent it to a brewery where it accommodated a dark beer for several months prior to bottling. When the brewery was finished with it, the Nelson’s thought “Why not put whiskey back in it and see how it tastes?”
When I asked about the final product’s flavor, they said “Let’s get some and find out.”
Andy went to his office and fetched a long “whiskey-thief” and three glasses. He pulled the bung from the barrel and plunged the copper tube into the hole and stirred it around slowly. With his thumb over the hole in the top of the tube, he extracted the whiskey. Then releasing his thumb from the top-spout, slowly poured the golden liquid into our glasses.
The barrel-proof whiskey was hot on the nose with distinct notes of baking spice, honey, toasted bread and the slightest citrus notes of hops. On the palate, it was fiery and viscous at first but finished long and mellow. We all guessed that the proof was somewhere north of 120. We let it sit for a while and upon our re-visit, it had mellowed considerably. Gone were the sharp and hot notes, replaced with what the Italians call “forza facile” (easy strength) when describing the best Grappa. This wasn’t typical American whiskey. The notes on the nose and the tongue were every bit as complex as an old scotch. As we tasted through the whiskeys aged in the casks late of madeira, sherry, cognac and even one in a barrel that formerly held mourvèdre wine, it became apparent that these young guys were tapping into something simultaneously new and ancient. New because bourbon is almost exclusively aged in new, American, charred, oak, but ancient in that the whiskeys that pre-date the American spirits of bourbon and sour mash, the whiskeys found in Scotland and Ireland frequently utilized the discarded barrels from wineries and brandy makers.
Resurrecting an ancient brand during the heyday of the whiskey craze bestows Charlie and Andy with a real boost, the trick will be having the staying power to outlive the trendiness of high-dollar American whiskey. After witnessing their dedication, hearing their story that bridges the 19th and 21st centuries and most importantly tasting their wares, I think in 20 years or more, my boys and I will be sipping on Belle Meade and Green Brier whiskey long after the hipsters have moved on to artisanal Lebanese Arak or Nepalese Raksi.
IT ALMOST DIDN’T HAPPEN In 1850, John P. Nelson, along with his wife and children boarded the German Steamer Helena Sloman and headed across the Atlantic to New York in hopes of a fresh start in a new place promising prosperity and acceptance for all. Mr. Nelson had sold his family soap and candle factory and nearly all their personal possessions. Everything they once owned was converted into a thing that held universal value… gold. To outsmart the pickpockets and strong-arm thieves he took his gold to an expert tailor and had the treasure sewn into dozens of little pockets, distributed throughout the pants, waistcoat and jacket of a new suit. All the pockets were sewn shut and all but the little money they needed for sundries during their voyage was inaccessible to pinching fingers. Since the coins were distributed throughout his clothing, there were no suspicious bulges to attract attention to his pockets. Even the suit was made of modest fabric as to not call attention to the wearer.
The voyage was the third crossing for the Helena Slone, under the command of Captain Paul Paulson. The first had gone without much incident with only a stop in the port of Deal in Kent to repair a minor mechanical issue. The second was frightful but successful with the ship losing her bowsprit in an Atlantic Hurricane. Her third crossing ended in tragedy. After 18 days at sea, a strong gale severely damaged her rudder which could be seen hanging on by a chain. Once the storm subsided, the Captain dispatched a repair crew in boats to try to re-attach the rudder. The sailors discovered that the damage was much more severe than they anticipated. Their attempts to secure the rudder back to its housing with ropes and cables failed and the giant rudder broke from its chains. As it fell and sunk, it struck the propeller, causing even more damage to both the screw and the driveshaft. The ship floundered for eight days, leaking from where the screwshaft entered the hull. Constant pumping kept her afloat. The morning of the 20th day at sea, a member of the crew spotted a sailing bark about ten miles away. Dramatic efforts to signal for help could not raise the attention of the passing ship. Members of the crew volunteered to take a boat and “pull for the passing ship” but the captain knew that the effort would be in vain and that any hope of saving the passengers relied on having all the ship’s boats available for transport to another vessel.
After two days of foul weather lashing the ship and threatening to dash her onto the reefs near Sable Island, the weather calmed and a sailing ship was spotted on a path that allowed for some hope of rescue. The ship’s signalman ran up signal flags in both German and English and near dusk shots were fired in hopes that the approaching ship could either hear the volley or see the muzzle flash.
Through a telescope, the Second Mate of the Helena Slone saw that the sailing ship, an English packet boat named the Devonshire, had trimmed her sails and altered her course. As soon as the Devonshire was within rowing range, the seas were once again getting rough. Water was nearly two feet deep in the bilge of the ship and the Captain feared that unless the passengers immediately took to the boats and were ferried to safety, many souls could be lost. John Nelson, his wife and their five children were helped into one of those boats. As they rode the rough seas toward the Devonshire, a wave crashed against and crested the side of the rowboat, tossing the Nelson patriarch overboard. The clever suit that protected his family fortune was now his anchor. His wife and children watched helplessly as he slipped under the waves and sank to the sandy bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
His wife and their five children arrived a day later in New York City. Charles, at 15 years-old was now the head of his family. He set to work doing the one thing his father’s business had taught him, making candles and soap. Within a few years this industrious young man who narrowly escaped death and arrived on the American shore with literally just the clothes on his back sat at the helm of one of the largest whiskey operations in the United States. He was the realization of his Father’s American Dream.
Written by Tom Ramsey / Photography by Brad + Jen