Charlie and Andy Nelson at their Nashville distillery and tasting room.
Words: Laura Scholz | Photos: Caroline Fontenot | Production: Jess Graves
At last year's Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, we met the affable Nelson Brothers. Charlie and Andy shared family anecdotes between sips of their heirloom whiskey, and invited us up to Tennessee to see their distillery in-person. Both in their early 30's, the brothers have established a sophisticated business beyond their years, one that's quickly become a treasured Nashville foothold. They're back at the festival again this year, so we figured it was as good a time as any to sit down and chat business, bourbon, brotherhood -- and of course, their favorite bars.
Jess enjoys a whiskey tasting at Nelson's Green Brier.
Chances are if you’re from the state of Tennessee, whiskey is in your blood.
But the Nelson family didn’t just dabble in avocational hootch. Andy and Charlie Nelson’s great-great-great grandfather Charles Nelson owned and operated Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, which in the late 19th century sold 380,000 gallons (nearly 2 million bottles) of whiskey annually, easily outselling the likes of now-household names like Jack Daniels and Maker’s Mark.
“We always knew there was a family whiskey thing,” explained Andy Nelson, the elder of the two brothers.
“But we didn’t know if it was legal, or just moonshine, or what. From time to time at family gatherings around the holidays, our great uncles would reminiscence and say ‘if only we could find that old spring in Greenbrier and get the family business up and running again,’ but we never took them seriously."
A serendipitous trip to a butcher ten summers ago changed everything.
Whiskey barrels at Nelson's Green Brier in Nashville.
Andy and his younger brother, Charlie, made the 20 mile trip north to Greenbrier to to buy meat from a butcher and ended up chewing instead on their family legacy.
“We'd stopped for gas before heading to the butcher, and we saw a historical marker that read Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery. We couldn’t believe our name was on that sign,” Charlie recalled.
As fate would have it, the old family distillery, started by Charlie’s namesake great-great-great grandfather (coincidentally himself a butcher before getting into the whiskey business), was housed on the same land as the butcher’s shop. The brothers could see the remnants of the old whiskey barrelhouse, while the spring house was still standing... and the spring was still flowing.
Charlie and Andy talk us through the distilling process.
“The butcher sent us to the Greenbrier Historical Society, they had old pictures and ads and bottles of whiskey with our family name on them,” said Andy.
“That was the moment when Charlie and I looked at each other and said, ‘we have to do this.’”
Reviving the nearly hundred years-dormant family business was no small feat. Andy was fresh out of college working for a software publishing company, and Charlie was a 20 year old college senior studying philosophy. Neither had any experience in business--whiskey or otherwise.
Fast forward a decade, and the Green Brier Distillery is not only back--it’s thriving. The brothers started selling Belle Meade Bourbon using Charles Nelson’s original recipe four years ago. A new distillery bearing the family name opened in Nashville in 2014, and over the past decade, the company has grown to 25 employees and sells 25,000 cases of whiskey annually.
Aging whiskey barrels at Nelson's Green Brier.
The Love List: What was the biggest challenge to getting the distillery off the ground?
Charlie Nelson: Raising capital. When we started working on resurrecting the distillery, I was barely 21 years old. Nobody would invest in a kid who was barely of drinking age, had no experience, and no money. People loved the story and could see the passion, but just would not write a check. It took over two years of trying to raise money every day before our first investor wrote our first check.
TLL: What’s it like to work with family?
Andy Nelson: Charlie and I are 16 months apart, so we’re very close. We work together because my strengths are Charlie’s weaknesses and vice versa. I am way more introverted. And he’s more extroverted. Charlie is sales and marketing. I’m production and operations. We’re kind of each others’ checks and balances.
CN: You can absolutely trust that everyone is going about things with the best of intentions.
Charlie and Andy Nelson speak in detail about the distillery's stills.
TLL: What’s the biggest misconception people have when you tell them you own a distillery?
AN: Some people think that we just sit around drinking whiskey all day. While tasting is part of the job, we still work in a factory setting that can be a high-hazard environment. There are a lot of safety precautions we take that don't exactly work for drunk employees.
CN: That this is just a hobby. People will ask, ‘so, what's your real job?’ I usually just laugh. Owning a distillery is more than just a full time job, it is pretty much a 24/7 way of life.
Nelson's Green Brier employees give visitors a warm welcome to their distillery, offering full facility tours and sips in their tasting room, above.
TLL: Where’s the strangest place you’ve ever talked about whiskey?
AN: We once did a little talk to a Baptist Church group in Greenbrier. We were the youngest people in the room by about fifty years, and they were a bunch of teetotalers. But even though they didn’t drink, they loved the history and the story behind what we’re doing with the family business.
TLL: Anything new on the horizon for the brand?
AN: We've begun testing out some line extensions of our special barrel finishing program that started with our sherry cask-finished Belle Meade Bourbon. We have some bourbon sitting in Cognac casks as we speak, and it's coming along quite nicely. We plan on trying some other types of casks as well, but I don't want to ruin too much of the secret!
CN: We are also really excited about the eventual launch of our Nelson's Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey, which is still a couple of years away.
Rolling a whiskey barrel across the facility.
TLL: Favorite drink with your namesake bourbon?
AN: I am completely a seasonal drinker, so I'm more intorefreshing warm weather drinks at the moment. That said, I love a Belle Meade Mule (Belle Meade Bourbon, ginger beer, lime) or mint julep. Otherwise, my go-to is just a Belle Meade Bourbon neat. That never fails.
CN: My favorite drink with Belle Meade Bourbon is always changing. There are so many great bartenders out there making delicious cocktails, so it's tough to choose. I think what's more important is the company and the atmosphere. I've got to say though, I always go back to a good ol' Old Fashioned.
Nelson's Green Brier Distillery is located in Nashville's Marathon Village, offering tours and tastings daily.
TLL: Can’t-miss Nashville haunts? [Ed. note: for our favorite city watering holes, check out our Drinker's Guide to Nashville]
AN: Obviously Nashville has a whole lot of great music. I personally prefer a smaller, dive-type atmosphere like Exit/In, but Marathon Music Works is really great as well. And if any of our out-of-town guests at the distillery ask, I tell them to go to Robert's downtown. It's the honky-tonk where the locals go, and it can't be beat. I'm also really big on the outdoors and love to go hiking and camping. We're very fortunate in Middle Tennessee to be so close to all kinds of beautiful trails and parks like Big South Fork and Virgin Falls.
CN: Nashville has grown so much over the last few years that it is getting hard to keep track of all the new places opening. One of my favorite places to eat and drink in Nashville is Rolf and Daughters. The food is outstanding, the drinks are killer (they even have their own Single Barrel of Belle Meade Bourbon), and the people who work there are some of the best in the business.