On a hot Nashville morning, Charlie and Andy Nelson walk through a distillery that is at once brand new and steeped in history. The gleaming copper still, tasting room, and retail shop are the recent culmination of an eight-year effort during which the brothers launched Belle Meade Bourbon and built the distillery for crafting Tennessee whiskey. The old liquor bottles, yellowing newspaper ads, and sepia-toned family photographs in the Hallway of History speak of an ear-lier age, and serve as a time capsule from their great-great-great grandfather’s origi-nal distillery.
From the mid-1900s until Prohibition shut it down in 1914, Charles Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery ruled the Southern whiskey frontier. “He produced the original Tennessee whiskey before Jack Daniel’s,” Charlie says of his namesake. According to the brothers’ research, by about 1885, Charles was selling about 387,000 gallons a year worldwide. By comparison, they say Jack Daniel’s capacity was only about 23,000 gallons.
But it wasn’t until 2006 that Charlie and Andy even knew about their birthright. Visiting the countryside outside Nashville with their parents, they noticed a historical marker for Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery; curious, they decided to stop by the local historical society. “We saw two original bottles of Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey. Every hair on my body stood up, and Andy and I looked at each other,” Charlie recalls. “We were just like: ‘Man, this is what we are here to do.’ And it was kind of like a moment of clarity and love at first sight and being struck by lighting.”
After much fund-raising and research, the brothers launched their first product, Belle Meade Bourbon, in 2012. Since then, the intense, 90.4-proof liquor—distilled in Indiana and bottled in Nashville—has been embraced by connoisseurs around the South. And the progeny of the first Charles Nelson have become whiskey rock stars, traveling the region to promote the brand. (In a smart business move, the Nelsons will sell Belle Meade at the distillery while they wait for their Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey to age two years.)
Nearly every restaurant or bar you visit in Nashville features Belle Meade bourbon and cocktails. “They have gained a lot of popularity in a short time,” says Kenny Lyons, general manager of the Nashville outpost of Husk, chef Sean Brock’s mecca of Southern fine dining. “They have done a really admirable job of trying to restore their family’s history.” Lyons, who built the restaurant’s drink program, says the new distillery “will certainly add to the experience” of Music City, where food and liquor are beginning to shine like the stars of the Grand Ole Opry.
Though their profiles are rising, the brothers are rarely far from the distillery. As they wrap up a recent tour of the grounds, they come to the enormous copper still that’s the heart of the operation. Charlie says they named her Miss Louisa after his great-great-great grandmother Louisa. She certainly deserves the honor: After Charles Nelson’s death in 1891, his widow ran the distillery for eighteen years. One of the few women ever to hold such a job, a kind of Southern widow Clicquot, she thrived in the male-dominated profession. “She was a badass,” Andy says. Miss Louisa just might say the same thing about her descendants and what they’ve done to honor their heritage. greenbrierdistillery.com •