Charlie and Andy Nelson went nearly three decades without fully realizing the extent of their family’s legacy in the spirits world. In fact, it wasn’t until they went up to the town of Greenbrier, 26 miles due north of Nashville, on a chance outing with their father—to buy a cow from a butcher—11 years ago that they began to slowly unearth a heritage that spanned centuries.
“One mile east on Long Branch, Charles Nelson opened Greenbrier Distillery in 1870. The largest producer in Robertson County of sour mash whiskey and fruit brandy until 1909, Nelson’s helped provide economic prosperity to this area,” the historical marker stated.
Original bottles of Greenbrier Distillery on display
Perhaps the stories they heard at family gatherings throughout their childhood and assumed to be fabled tales all those years were, in fact, true?
As it turned out, they were: Their great-great-great grandfather Charles Nelson had moved to Nashville just before the onset of the Civil War, bought a grocery on 2nd Avenue and realized the bulk of his sales stemmed from liquor. So he started a distillery of his own, which by 1885 was one of the most prosperous of its kind in the state (if not the country). When Charles died in 1891, his wife Louisa picked up where he left off and became one of the only women ever to run a distillery.
But Prohibition swept the state at the turn of the century, and in 1909, Louisa was forced to shut down Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery. Being the family guys that they are, Charlie and Andy realized their life’s work was to pick up where their ancestors had left off and revive the now defunct distilling company.
Three years after careful research and much planning, the Nelson brothers put the family back into business, exactly a century after it shuttered. Their first product, Belle Meade Bourbon, soon followed, utilizing a bulk high-rye-content bourbon out of Indiana similar to one Charles Nelson once used, since whiskey takes many years to age.
Showing Made in Tennessee spirit at Nelson's Green Brier Distillery
A couple years beyond that, in August 2014, they started cooking mashes and distilling in their 30,000-square-foot distillery, Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, located in the artsy enclave of Marathon Village, which opened its doors to the public that November. While Belle Meade Bourbon remains their signature spirit, the Nelsons have put out several others in the years that followed.
Barrel room filled with Nelson's Green Brier spirits
“The most recent product we just released in the fall, the Madeira Casks, rounds out the three special cask finished products we’ve got,” Andy says.
The addition of the Cognac, Madeira and Sherry cask finishes over the past two years make a total of six products that the Nelsons produce. Exclusive to the distillery is the brothers’ White Whiskey and Single Barrel. Additionally, a limited-edition corn whiskey, which was a special single-barrel product made for the last Southern Foodways Symposium, is available in 200-milliliter hip flask bottles at the distillery as long as supplies last.
Two years after opening, the distillery itself has grown quicker than the brothers could have ever hoped for. They now employ 33 full-time workers, in addition to a roster of rotating bottlers, and they already need more space.
Taste samples of bourbon and whiskey
The tasting glass at Nelson's Green Brier Distillery, located in Marathon Village in Nashville
“We kind of figured maybe we’d have seven or eight people and that our office space would be plenty, but now we’ve got four times that,” Andy says. Charlie adds that eventually they’re going to have to expand to add more office, retail and barreling space.
Part of the existing distillery space is a spacious events venue that holds weddings, corporate events, private dinners, fundraisers and other parties. And new for 2017, the distillery will play host to Nashville’s up-and-coming musicians once a month.
“The singer-songwriter series is something I’m really looking forward to,” Charlie says. “We’re hoping to have more music stuff going on here and just getting more locals in, in general.”
For future show dates, follow the distillery’s Facebook page. And what about the future of the distillery, five or 10 years down the road? Charlie says he’d very much like to see a bar and restaurant become part of the mix—eventually.
“We physically set up the tasting room so that if and when any laws change that will allow us to sell drinks, we could easily transition to a functioning bar after-hours,” Andy adds. “That would be awesome if that happened.”
Tours of the distillery, which is open Tuesday through Sunday, are $10 and culminate with tastings around the bar. The gift shop sells branded merchandise like T-shirts, mugs, and of course, bourbon. Bonus: In a state with prohibitive liquor laws, Nelson's Green Brier Distillery is one of the only places in town you can pick up a bottle of booze on a Sunday.