It’s not everyday that you nip out to the butchers and come back with a distillery but in shorthand that’s what happened to Charlie and Andy Nelson.
The story begins generations ago, around 1820, with the family relocating from Hagenow in Germany to America. John Philip Nelson had sold his candle and soap business and converted all the family assets into gold. For safekeeping on the voyage to the US he had a suit specially designed to look after this expensive cargo. Sadly the ship went down and while family members were saved in lifeboats John Philip, weighed down by the suit, drowned. Arriving in New York with virtually nothing a 15 year old Charles found himself looking after the household.
Setting out in what he knew, soaps and candles, he got enough money together to move the family west, to Ohio. After a few years there they moved again to Nashville, here setting up a grocery business with a focus on coffee, meat and whiskey. The grocery business became a chain and 20 stores are still in existence today.
Charles Nelson realised that they were having some issues fulfilling orders on the whiskey side and stepped into the production area. He sold his interest in the grocery business and concentrated on whiskey full time. He was quick to understand that producing a reliable product was key and it’s wasn’t great business for people to have teeth falling out after consuming your whiskey. He patented techniques for the production of safe whiskey and was an early adopter of selling in glass bottles rather that out the barrel, as was normal practice of the time. The business grew and grew and became the largest producer of Tennessee whisky at the time. Nelson’s was selling 2 million bottles and was capable of producing more than 16 times the amount of whiskey than his nearest competitors. Charles passed away quite suddenly and his wife Louisa took the business forward. She expanded into international sales but the storm clouds of prohibition were gathering in the US and in 1909 Tennessee adopted this policy. The Green Brier distillery ceased operations and Louisa sold the remaining stock and the site. She went on to support the suffragette movement , fighting for the vote for women, and in a movement that was not entirely in tune with the alcohol business.
Fast forward to 2006 and the two boys, Charlie and Andy Nelson, were helping out their dad on a trip to Greenbrier and spotted their name on a historical marker. The butcher that they had gone to visit confirmed the family connection and the boys had a project! The curator of the Greenbrier Historical Society was able to expand on the family link and was even able to show the boys two of the original bottles of Nelson’s Greenbrier Tennessee Whisky.
After three years of planning and research the boys opened the doors of the Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery 100 yrs after it had ceased operations. Their research has allowed them to follow the original recipes but ensure these are good for modern tastes.
The focus of production is on whiskies and bourbons although there have been a handful of ryes produced. Around 600kgs of cereals are used to give around 3000l of wash off the cooker for fermentation. In cooking they are looking for a pH in around 4.3 and Nelsons do use a higher malted barley percentage, well into the teens, compared to other producers. This has the effect of almost eliminating the need for any enzyme treatment.
Single strain yeast is pitched and fermentation allowed to proceed for around 96 hours achieving around 10-12% alcohol. Interestingly the vessels for fermentation are stainless steel and cubic in design and don’t have the the tapered conical that we are used to seeing in the UK.
The weather conditions play a significant role with temperatures here easily hitting 100deg F in the summer. As a result cooling regimes alter with city water, cooling towers or chillers all playing a role subject to the climate and also the cereals used in production.
Still runs are conducted over a two 6hr period and charcoal filtration also takes place to produce around 350 litres of finished product for barreling per run of fermentation.
Here barrels are new make US oak and come with a gorgeous vanilla and toasted smell. The 50 gallon barrels are filled with racking available at the back of the plant.
The range of product is growing with Tennessee whiskies and the Belle Meade Bourbon range under their control. The caramel notes, spices and flavours of these products will feature in our tasting report very soon.
With distribution spreading Charlie and Andy are heading for as much success as their predecessors in the business did.
With special thanks to Charlie Nelson and Goodloe Harman of Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery