GREENBRIER, Tenn. — Nelson’s GreenBrier Distillery has the elements that would arouse the curiosity of a connoisseur, historian and traditionalist.
Owners Charlie and Andy Nelson have, Phoenix-like, reconnected to their ancestral roots to reestablish a Bourbon recipe which once reached such lofty status that it overshadowed Jack Daniels as the world’s leading and preferred Tennessee whiskey.
Every roaring success along the way, however, was followed by tragedy of some sort, which was a riches-to-rags saga that would be sensational fodder for a business oriented novel. The story has no murder or steamy romance to spice it up, but it is a remarkable tale.
It all began with Charlie’s and Andy’s great, great, great grandfather, Charles Nelson, who was born July 4, 1835, in a small town in northern Germany. Charles was 15-years-old when his parents sold their soap and candle factory in Germany in order to emigrate to the United States.
Charles’ father sewed the family fortune, which he had converted into gold coins, in the lining of his clothes. The ship on the way across the Atlantic, encountered storms which swept several passengers overboard including the patriarch whose coin lined garment caused him to sink with the greatest of alacrity.
The other members of the family survived, but arrived in New York with only the clothes on their backs. This meant that teenage Charles became the head of the house. He and his brother, naturally, began making soaps and candles so the family could survive. A couple of years later, the Nelsons moved to Cincinnati to enter the grocery business but serendipitously learned to make high end whiskey.
After the Civil War, Charles moved to Nashville where his business became the place for anyone interested in buying meat, coffee and whiskey. He was best at making whisky which influenced him to concentrate on producing and marketing whiskey. In 1885, Charles sold over 380,000 gallons of whiskey in the U. S. and Europe. Jack Daniels sales totaled 23,000 gallons.
Charles was a young man of 56 when he passed away in 1891 with his wife Louisa assuming control of the business, the only woman of the times, to run a distillery. The business flourished, but another downturn loomed. Prohibition which officially began in 1909 in the state of Tennessee brought about the demise of the family’s distilling business.
Six generations later, a funny thing happened on the way to a butcher shop for the Nelson descendants in the summer of 2006. Charles, Andy and their father Bill had purchased a cow and were taking the beef to a butcher shop to be cut into steaks for their freezer, an act of enterprise that many families underscore today.
The Nelson boys had heard the stories about the family distilling history. While in conversation with the butcher about their heritage, he pointed to a warehouse across the street, noting that the spring on the property had never stopped running and that it was “pure as can be.” This is where the “original” Nelson made his fortune.
Next move? The Greenbrier Historical Society. The curator had come in possession of two original bottles of Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey. From a company handout, there is this reference: “For a moment time stood still. It was love at first sight. Charlie and Andy then looked back at one another, knowing what the other was thinking: ‘This IS our destiny.’”
The only better way to appreciate this story is to sit down in the warehouse with a bottle of Bell Meade Bourbon, which Charlie and Andy make today just like their ancestor did a century ago. It took them three years of research, planning and hard work, to resurrect the brand that had spawned aficionados for years. That original recipe would enable the Nelsons to gain traction in distilling and now is central to marketing and sales.
With a long history of affiliation in the wine and spirits business, Mike Cheek, a University of Georgia graduate, became Chairman of the board. Other potential investors are eagerly taking note.
What’s the significance of all this? That ingenuity, enterprise and an appreciation for history, remind us that the Great American dream survives today. The original Charles Nelson was an unflagging advocate of the work ethic. His word was his bond, and his business integrity connected with the man in the street.
The rest of the story – the current distilling of Bell Meade Bourbon – is as appealing as the celebrated drink that Charlie and Andy’s great, great, great grandfather originally produced.
Loran Smith is an athletic administrator at the University of Georgia.