The story of Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery is one of great ambition during the early years of the United States of America. It is also a great example of the damage of prohibition only to find itself resurrected once again. Carl Wilhelm Diedrich “Charles” Nelson was born in Hagenow, Germany on Saturday July 4, 1835 to John Philip Nelson. By trade John owned a candle and soap factory that helped to support his family of six children and a wife. However, he had a dream of taking his family to the United States of America. John decided to sell his factory and pack his family up and immigrate to North America. The tale goes that John had clothing specifically made for him to hold all of the gold that he earned from the sale of his factory so that he can have it on his person during the long journey across the ocean. At this time, the only mode of transportation across the ocean was on the water. On Saturday October 26, 1850 the Nelson family set sail on steam vessel Helena Sloman from Hamburg, Germany to New York.
The Helena Sloman was built by Robert Sloman and was named after his daughter Helena. The steam technology was still in its early years of development, only having the first steam powered vessel cross the Atlantic twelve years prior to the Helena Sloman’s maiden voyage. The Nelson family was aboard the vessel’s third voyage captained by Captain Paulson. The Atlantic Ocean had been rough during this time so it did not make for an easy journey. Having already experienced rough weather, the worst of it came on Tuesday November 19, 1850 when a large wave impacted the vessel severely damaging it and its rudder. It left the vessel in dire need of help. After multiple distress signals a vessel came to assistance and began taking passengers aboard their vessel via lifeboats. The water was still rough and during the loading of passengers several lifeboats flipped over sending passengers into the deep cold waters below. John was taken by surprise when he became one of these victims and was sent into the water below, weighed down by all of the family’s money in his pocket. He sank to the depths of the ocean to his death, leaving behind his family on this rigorous journey to America.
At this time Charles was only fifteen years old but he found himself as the head of the household. The family eventually completed their journey across the ocean, landing in New York with little to no money and just the clothes on their back. It was at this point, like many immigrants, Carl’s German name was changed to Charles. If adapting to an entire new life in America was not enough, as the oldest son Charles found himself having to support his entire family. He turned to one of the only trades that he knew, candle and soap making. Once he was able to make enough money from his trade, he moved his family to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1852. The change of scenery also opened up new opportunities for the family. Charles learned how to become a butcher. It was during this time that he may have also been first introduced to distilling. With the growing livestock market in Cincinnati, the livestock was often fed with grains. With grains and the preservation of them came distillation by many farmers during this time. Charles was eventually able to find a partner and open his own grocery store called Blersch & Nelson.
After several years in Cincinnati, Charles was ready for another change. This time he set his eyes on Nashville, Tennessee. In 1857 he moved there and partnered with another individual to open a grocery store called Nelson & Pfeiffer. The grocery store became well known for its meat, coffee and most importantly, whiskey. Charles would purchase whiskey from distilleries and sell it in his shop. During this time period, the bottling of whiskey was not yet common, so more than likely he would have sold the whiskey to customers by the barrel or they would fill up their own container. The whiskey that Charles sold in his shop became very popular among his customers. One of his sources of whiskey came from the Green Brier Distillery, also known as Old No. 5 Distillery, in Green Brier, Tennessee. The distillery was built in 1867 and held a distiller producer number of five in the state of Tennessee, listing it as one of the earliest registered distilleries.
With the rising popularity of the whiskey he was selling, Charles decided to get out of the grocery business and pursue selling whiskey full time. He purchased the Green Brier Distillery in 1870 and went from a whiskey seller to a whiskey producer. The distillery was renamed to Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery. Under his new distillery, Charles went on to produce approximately thirty different brands of liquor ranging from Tennessee whiskey, bourbon whiskey, corn whiskey, gin, apple brandy and peach brandy, among others. Two of his most popular brands were Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey and Belle Meade.
Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey was the company’s flagship product. It was produced using the Lincoln County Process which helped give it its Tennessee Whiskey distinction. This method was being done by many other whiskey distilleries in Tennessee. The process uses charcoal mellowing to help filter the unaged distillate before being barreled. The unaged whiskey travels through charcoal allowing impurities to be stripped out of the distillate before barrel aging. Other major distilleries in Tennessee were also doing this, such as Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel. What set Charles’s product apart was that he used a wheat instead of rye. Typically whiskey distillers would use a mash bill combination of corn, rye and barley, but Green Brier’s mash bill was composed of corn, wheat and barley.
Belle Meade was a brand of bourbon produced by the Belle Meade Distillery in Nashville owned by Sperry Wade and Company. Despite Belle Meade not being produced by Nelson’s distillery, he was contracted to sell the product on behalf of Sperry Wade. However, all that changed in 1880 when the Belle Meade Distillery burned down and production moved to Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery. The label depicted two horses, one being Bonnie Scotland, a thoroughbred of the Northern Dancer bloodline.
In Charles’s personal life he was married twice. His first marriage did not last long as his wife had died, however together they had a son, Charles Nelson Jr. On March 4, 1863 Charles married Louisa Christine Rohlfing Nelson. Together the two had five children, Alice, Emma, Louise, Henry and William. Charles founded and also served as the first president of the Nashville Trust Company and the Nashville Musical Union. He also never forgot his birthplace, as he returned to his home town several times after immigrating to the United States of America. Charles died on December 13, 1891. After his death, Louisa took over operations of the distillery. She is possibly one of the first women owners of a distillery. She helped to continue to keep her late husband’s brand relevant and flourishing for the next eighteen years after his death. At the height of the distillery’s operation is was producing more whiskey than the other Tennessee whiskey producing competitors.
In 1909 the state of Tennessee passed laws that prohibited the sale and production of alcohol in the state. The laws shuttered the distilling industry in the state ten years before the National Prohibition was enacted throughout the United States of America in 1919. This ultimately shut the doors of Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery. Even after National Prohibition ended, Tennessee held strict alcohol laws within the state and the distillery could not make a comeback. The once very popular brand was lost to history for nearly a century. It was only by chance that Charles Nelson’s brand was rediscovered and resurrected by two of his great-great-great grandchildren.
William Andy Nelson had just graduated college and his brother Charlie Nelson had one semester remaining. With a grant to study cave paintings, Charlie realized that the grant would not be enough to cover his travel expenses, so he returned home to Nashville from college at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. One day in 2006 their father, Bill, had asked his sons to ride with him to a butcher in Green Brier, Tennessee because he had purchased a quarter of a cow. His sons agreed and while on the trip, about a mile before reaching the butcher, the Nelsons stopped at a Citgo gas station. There near the gas station was a historic marker sign that stated that Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery was one mile east on Long Branch Road. The brothers had heard stories about their family’s old distillery but this was the closest that they had ever come to it.
The Nelsons continued to the butcher and once there the brothers asked the butcher, Chuck, if he knew anything about the distillery. He directed them to look across the road and there were old warehouses still standing from the old distillery. The Nelsons went to explore and found the spring that would have once fed water to the distillery still functional. After they took a drink from it they returned to the butcher and he referred them to a local historic society. Exploring the butcher’s suggestion the brothers checked out the society and found two of the original bottles from the distillery. It was from that moment that the brothers knew that they wanted to resurrect their family’s distillery.
Despite their newfound dreams, the laws in Tennessee were not in their favor just as it was not in Louisa’s favor in 1909. Despite the days of Prohibition being long over, in 2006 it was only legal to distill in three counties in Tennessee. The three counties were Lincoln, Coffee and Moore. Eventually Perry County joined the list, but still no Robertson County where the original distillery was located. However, that did not stop Charlie and William from researching their family’s history, distillation history and visiting distilleries to learn all that they could. In 2009, one hundred years after Tennessee laws shut down distillation in the state, laws were passed to allow for distillation to begin in Nashville. Even though it wasn’t in the county of the original distillery, it was in the same town Charles once called home and where the brothers called home. This was the chance that the brothers needed.
Even though the laws allowed for them to begin the process of restoring their family’s brand, Charlie and William were still a long way away in knowledge on how to get the company up and going and in funds. Their father Bill was friends with Woodford Reserve’s first master distiller Lincoln Henderson. Lincoln was able to offer some advice to the Nelson brothers but he was working on a new venture with his son and grandson, Angel’s Envy. The brothers were able to collect enough money to hire Dave Pickerell, long time master distiller for Maker’s Mark. Dave had retired in 2008 from Maker’s Mark after fourteen years as distiller and opened his own consulting firm.
Although the time that the Nelsons were able to hire Dave was short, they were able to learn key information that would help get their business going. One of the main lessons that they learned was that they did not have to jump into distilling and buying all of the distilling equipment right away, they could source distillate from another distiller, blend it and bottle it. The brothers began meeting with barrel brokers and testing out samples. They eventually decided on sourcing from Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI) of Lawrenceburg, Indiana. In more common history, the distillery is known as Midwest Grain Products of Indiana (MGP).
The Nelsons took out a personal loan, even putting Bill’s house as collateral, to purchase their first lot of barrels from LDI. The sourced bourbon became the resurrected Belle Meade brand. The label on the bottle was made into an almost exact replica of the original. A newspaper advertisement from Friday May 1, 1885 was provided to the brothers by the descendants of Sperry and Wade family. The advertisement depicted what the label looked like, so it was used to recreate the modern version. In March 2012 the first bottle of Belle Meade was sold. The brothers continued to sell their product and reinvest it into the company.
By 2014 the dream of bringing back Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery came to life as the distillery was built in Nashville and opened under the same name that Charles Nelson created. The government gave the distillery a historic designation allowing it to carry the original distilled spirits producer of 5 instead of the current number they would have been given as a new distillery. Distillation of their own made product began on Monday August 11, 2014. The product was Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey featuring the same charcoal mellowing process and wheat mash bill as what was coming off of Charles’s still. The recipe for the whiskey came from an interpretation of an old newspaper article when a journalist visited the distillery pre-Prohibition and took a tour and documented the entire process and recipe ratios. The new Nelson’s Green Brier whiskey was first barreled on Thursday August 14, 2014. The Nashville distillery opened to the public on Sunday November 23, 2014. While their new make product aged the company continued to produce Belle Meade and they do so to this day. The first bottle of Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey sold on Tuesday October 1, 2019. It is bottled at 45.5% alcohol by volume. The distillery states that on the nose the product boasts of vanilla, caramel, apple and cinnamon while the palate continues with cinnamon, apple with the addition of cocoa and brown sugar. The finish continues with the apple, cinnamon, sugar and gives way to black cherry.
In 2016 Constellation Ventures, a venture capital segment of Constellation Brands, took a minority interest in Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery and by 2019 had acquired a controlling interest in the company. Charlie and Andy continued to operate and manage the company. Constellation Brands is an international company with stakes in many wine, beer and spirits companies. The acquisition allowed for Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery to have access to the resources, capital and knowledge of a large diverse owner.
The brothers continued making a name for themselves and by 2022 they began to discontinue their Belle Meade brand’s availability to the national market. Sipping History was the first to report that Belle Meade was being discontinued in the national market. The brothers wanted to focus their products towards the Nelson family name, so they retired the Belle Meade name and replaced it with Nelson Brothers Whiskey in the national market. The line continued to offer the sourced bourbon whiskey that Belle Meade once offered, but just under the Nelson Brothers name. The initial products offered from the line was a “Classic” line and “Reserve” line. The classic line will be at 93.3 proof (46.65% alcohol by volume), made with a high rye bourbon mash bill and aged in new charred oak barrels. The “Reserve” will feature a higher proof offering coming in at 107.8 proof (53.9% alcohol by volume). Belle Meade will continue to be available, but only in the Tennessee market.
Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery was once one of the top producing distilleries in Tennessee and a popular whiskey brand. Prohibition laws in Tennessee forced the distillery to close down and stay that way for nearly one hundred years. A chance encounter by two of the great-great-great grandchildren of the late Charles Nelson helped to revive the family legacy. Next time you are sipping Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey remember you are drinking more than what’s in your glass, you are sipping history.