Podcast Episode: Andy Nelson of Nelson's Green Brier Distillery
Two brothers stumble upon a historic marker with thier last name on it. And the rebirth of a legendary Tennessee whiskey began.
Listen to the Episode
Yes, you've heard me tell the tale of Charles Nelson's life journey and how Andy and Charlie Nelson discovered the family's distillery history. But there is so much more to the stories Andy can tell. So, here is the entire interview from my summer trip to Nashville.
In this episode you'll hear:
- What the butcher knew
- Walking through the warehouse
- Seeing their destiny
- Getting distilling in Nashville or Greenbrier
- The fantastical tale of John Phillip
- Seeing your family on the History Channel
- Selling by the bottle
- Louisa takes over and how she's been lost to history
- Raising money out of school
- Coming up with Belle Meade
- Dave Pickerell's help
- Tennessee wheated
- The Tennessee Whiskey Trail
- Bonnie Scotland and Northern Dancer
- The future
Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore." The full transcript is available on the tab above.
Welcome to Whiskey Lore, I'm Drew Hannush.
All right, be honest now. before my episode in season three called John Phillip’s Dream had you ever heard of Nelson's Green Brier Tennessee whiskey? Had you ever heard of Belle Meade Bourbon? Well it's probably more likely that you heard the second one rather than the first because the first when I did this interview I think was just in Tennessee whereas Belle Meade Bourbon is more spread out throughout the country.
What was fun for me because I didn't know much about either one and then to find out that both those names actually tie back into history into a distillery that ran in the 19th century and ended up dying out mainly because of Prohibition. It's just the kind of story that I love for Whiskey Lore. So I wanted to go talk to Andy Nelson about all of this so that I could craft the story. And what's interesting about what happens when I do this research is that sometimes I end up finding even more information after I do the interview. Ae find some things maybe correct a little bit of knowledge here or there and I bumped into the actual captain, I didn't bump into him personally, I bumped into a new york herald story where they had talked to the captain of the Helena Sloman which was the ship that brought the ancestors of Charlie and Andy Nelson across the Atlantic Ocean. It was a fascinating read just a a total account of everything that happened there and it helped me get a complete picture of that story from front to back so that was really fun to get to share this episode with Andy Nelson after having done all of that research. But there's a lot of stuff in this interview that I did not cover within the episode. And I also released part of this interview at one point but not all of this interview so I want to give you a chance to hear the entire interview with Andy Nelson of Nelson's Green Brier Distillery because there's some great information in here and I really think you're going to enjoy it. So enjoy this encore and full episode of my interview with Andy Nelson of Nelson's Green Brier Distillery.
How did you come about finding this family history involving whiskey.
Yeah well we came about it because - so growing up my brother and I had heard a little bit about the the distillery but we didn't know if it was even necessarily a distillery. We just had heard little bits and pieces of the idea that there was some sort of whiskey thing in Greenbrier Tennessee. And so Greenbrier of course is about 30 minutes north of Nashville and at that time we didn't even know where Greenbrier was we had just kind of heard of it. We didn't know if it was a real legitimate business if it was legal how big it was or anything like that and. So then the the thing that really kind of brought us to it was my dad went in with some buddies to buy a full cow worth of meat from a butcher up in Greenbrier. And so dad asked us this was summer of 2006 and I had graduated from college the previous year and Charlie my brother had just he had a semester left before graduating. And so dad asked us if we wanted to go with him to go pick up this this meat this our quarter of the cow worth yeah so we said sure so it's me and Charlie and mom and dad and we get in the car we go up to Greenbrier and we stop to get gas right before we get there and at the gas station it's at Springfield Highway and Main Street in Greenbrier and there's it's a citgo station now and there's this historical marker that says Nelson's Green Brier Distillery on it you know and when we were pumping gas we saw that and we're just like blown away thinking like this must be it right
So so at that point did you know that you specifically had had a family member who had built a distillery or was it kind of you'd heard echoes of something
Yeah I mean a little of both if that makes sense I mean it we knew that Charles Nelson was his that's my brother's name I mean literally there's a William and or a Charles in every generation of our family going all the way back to this Charles Nelson of the distillery so we knew that Charles was a name and we knew that he was the one who had the whiskey thing in Greenbrier so like so it was that but once we saw this marker it was like oh okay this is this is a little bit like this is the first breadcrumb we're gonna see for this thing a bigbig clue so it said one mile east on long branch road Charles Nelson opened the Green Brier Distillery. You know it goes on to talk about the economic prosperity it brought the town and the county and such and so it was like wow you know this was a real thing and it was just really really this surreal amazing moment. But you know the fact was we're still at a gas station pumping gas so we filled up the tank yeah and and figured out like let's let's ask the butcher if he knows anything about this because he only lived about a mile away. So we get to his house and as the sign said one mile east well a butcher lived about a mile east so we get to his house. And by the way you know this is like it's not a fancy butcher shop it's just this you know small country town butcher this guy named Chuck Grissom and it's just his house and then behind his house is you know his slaughterhouse and so we're introduced to him through I guess a mutual friend andhe we got there we asked him what he knew about the old distillery and he said we look across the street. And we looked across the street and probably no more than a hundred yards away was this original barrel warehouse. And it was like you know we saw it on the drive up and we're kind of like oh that's a cool building but of course we didn't even know enough to know at that point that that looks exactly like an old distillery you know barrel warehouse and that's exactly what it was. And so this old old building sitting there and then behind the creek was this old spring house you know and the creek was being fed by that spring. And then sitting right above the creek was this old it looked like a grain house or something I think we figured now that it was likely a fermenter building that held fermentation vats so. So we saw these things and it was like each beach building that we saw and walked into was like just more and more surreal you know and and you know and that was the experience of that first day of recognizing like holy crap this is this is a big thing. And then so and then Chuck the butcher he told us to go over you know back about a you know couple blocks from where we came to the Greenbrier Historical Society where you know it's just a small little Victorian style house dedicated to the history of the town of Greenbrier and has a little kind of library in there and everything so we we walked up there and the nice lady at the library you know asked what we wanted to see and we told her well where her name is Nelson and she kind of like oh. Yeah a fun fact we have since not too far after that someone told us kind of jokingly my brother Charlie you know Charles Nelson they're like I bet you anything like even at 23 years old I bet you could be mayor of this town based on recognition alone. So so anyway we got there and we walk into this room that was you know dedicated mostly to the history of the distillery and we saw these old you know artifacts and things that people had dug up or found kids playing in the creek over the years and among them was that there's this glass case with these two original bottles a Greenbrier Tennessee whiskey with our name on it you know and that was really just the moment. It was like being struck by lightning as Charlie will say it's it's it was really that moment where we knew like this is what we're here to do. And you know again I was just out of college Charlie still not even graduated yet but we knew all right well we've got something we can do and we can just put our whole life into it because we didn't have you know families of our own or kids or any careers anything like that.
I was to say did you have any kind of career direction at that point or did it just kind of fall into your lap at that minute.
It kind of just fell into my lap at that minute for me I mean Charlie obviously not because he was still in school but I at that point that summer I was let's see I can't remember if it was that summer or after anyway I had you know interned at the Country Music Association for a summer and then was doing video editing for a software publishing company as well but I it was really I didn't go to school for that or anything it was just they needed someone to do it and I did it and I actually liked it and I think I was pretty good at it you know for a very beginner. But but that's what I was doing and so it was it was nice because it's not, I don't know I was I was able to kind of take something and do the research on the side after work and stuff so it worked out well.
Okay so this was 2006 yep so in 2006 there still really wasn't an open landscape for building a distillery in Tennessee correct that was still there were still some legal battles to be fought to open Tennessee up beyond what three counties I think at that time?
Yeah that's exactly right and yeah big time big time struggles so at that point we were looking into okay yeah just typical any you know starting a business plan what does it take to open this business and and this was it's a highly regulated industry of course beverage alcohol and, and one of the things was that to your point it was only legal to distill in three counties in the state. Davidson County where we are in Nashville was not one of them nor was Robertson County which is where the town of Greenbrier was and still is and so we found that we would have to gosh now if I can remember the details that we would have to start get a referendum in the county and get some percentage of voters who voted in the last election to back this referendum to allow us to allow to allow distilling I guess in the in the county. And even you know and of course with all that the whole political process it was like you had to wait till the next election cycle and all the years it would take and so it was pretty daunting at first but it was like that was the only thing we knew we could do so we started that process.
I was going to say you probably didn't take a political science career tracked in in college
No I took a political science class but politics are not not my favorite thing but simultaneously there were some folks in here in Nashville which we you know we still we lived in Nashville but we were trying to do this thing in Robertson County and so there were some other folks in Nashville who had begun trying to get it legal to distill in Davidson County and kind of long story short by 2010 it became legal in 40 some odd counties with throughout the state. And so that was great help for us of course and so we were fully fully supportive of that venture as well and you know by that time we had figured all right for for various reasons it probably isn't going to work initially in Robertson County just based on a handful of other factors that are not it's you know.
Were you thinking of potentially putting it back in the same spot that it came from
I've seen that strip of land it's not very wide so that wouldn't be a very big facility would it right and it you know the there
You know there's a bunch of housing around there and it I mean the fact is it's just essentially what we found is that if we wanted which we did this was absolutely our plan we wanted to build a distillery on that original ground in the original lens but we found that it was going to cost us many millions of dollars just to you know acquire enough land to not only build the distillery on but like in practical terms we would likely have to buy land and property and houses from people just so that we could tear them down and build roads to have the appropriate access for a you know a distillery and you know a commercial business like that and so and it's sort of an industrial business so it just wasn't like we it just became a little too much for us at that moment. So we said okay well let's maybe wait for the future on that but in the meantime we can let's start something in Nashville where we're a little more familiar you know maybe we can start smaller and and so that's what we did.
So talk a little bit about how you came upon the history then because you've done some extensive history so it sounds not knowing anything about Charles Nelson or how much did you know about Charles Nelson when you started this process?
Yeah we started you know from that day in 2006 we realized all right we've got some history to to learn here and in in the process of building the business plan it was like there were there were almost three phases of of learning that we had to go through there was learning how the industry works just the distilling and beverage alcohol industry there was our family history of course and then there was yeah and which kind of goes along with the the distillery history right well I guess those were two they're really the two main phases I don't know what the third was I was just making up the number three it sounds good
You really wanted to work that into the the marketing part of the whole yeah thing as well so
Yeah yeah yeah so anyway wewe just jumped right in and you know started going to city town city county state archives libraries whatever we could do talking to family members I'm getting somewhat of like oral histories and you know just memories from from generations older than us and going to folks in Greenbrier and just trying to I mean almost like journalists honestly just trying to follow a story. Like okay you give me a lead tell me about this one other person who you think may know something more about it maybe they have an old bottle, maybe their grandfather or grandmother you know worked at the distillery or has some story about it and that's you know it's as simple as that I mean it just took but over the years and I mean we we still nowadays we'll every now and then come across you know someone will reach out to us and say you know I've I knew this story about the old distillery or. You name it I mean we we continue to learn a whole lot about it into the into the present day so it wasn't like we figured it all out within that first year or anything.
Well I know from my own studies on things that you kind of go through layers and you find one layer you solidify that layer and then you have to move on to the next layer and and try to get after that one so how long was it before because it's a very interesting story and and maybe you can relate it to us the story of John Phillip and Charles and the journey across the ocean and and all of that and and when did you find that that information how early in the process did you find that story?
Well we that was one of the first things we found out but the details of it took you know essentially years to to uncover themselves and so the the I say it was kind of the first thing we that we learned because I mentioned earlier that you know we grew up hearing a little bit about the idea that there was some sort of whiskey thing in the town of Greenbrier as little as we knew about that. But the other thing that we had grown up hearing was this kind of fantastical tale of our family member coming over from Germany on a boat with the gold sewn into his clothing and then he sank and the rest of the family made it but with nothing but the clothes in their backs and that's that's kind of the extent of the detail that I remember hearing but this is of course as me as a little little kid you know. And honestly it's funny because I you know I remember only so much detail but I do definitely remember knowing have having some inkling that when I'd hear my dad tell this story like occasionally I mean he's it's like a an old southern storyteller kind of guy you know and I remember my mom occasionally teasing him about like yeah the the old kind of never let the truth get in the way of a good story kind of thing right. And and so I as a kid I was like is he just lying about like what's going on with this but I at very least knew or thought that maybe he was embellishing this just to like for the sake of a good story. And and then over the years we found out that not only was he not embellishing it it was actually wilder than than he even knew. And and so basically the story is is basically that so Charles Nelson who is my great great great grandfather my triple great grandfather so he grew up he was born in Germany on the 4th of July in 1835 on a small town called Hageno and his father John Philip Nelson who would have been my quadruple great grandfather owned a soap and candle factory there. And so in 1850 he decided that he wanted to sell the soap and candle factory and move the family to America. So he sold the factory and he had all the proceeds from that sale and the rest of whatever the family owned converted into gold's coin, it could have been gold bricks for all I know but gold in any case that he had special clothing made for to to sew the gold into his clothing like literally like just in his clothing. Sso they got on a boat in October of 1850 from Hamburg to New York it was called the Helena Sloman and it was it was the third voyage that the Helena Sloman had taken from Hamburg to New York the previous two voyages had carried a couple other now at least name recognized German immigrant families and that'd be the Heinz family of Heinz you know tomato ketchup and stuff who settled in Pittsburgh and then Steinweg which was anglicized into Steinway of Steinway pianos. Which is kind of cool that that actually came from this was years ago before we we opened the distillery and everything and my dad called Charlie on a Sunday afternoon and he said Charlie you watching the history channel of all the things in the world I could be like no I don't happen to be it's like well turn it on they're talking about the helena sloman wow so he turns it on andand they talk about the hell in a slum and that's where we found they didn't mention anything about Charles Nelson at that time right on the show but they talk about the the Heinz and the Steinweg families so that's how we learn about that so some of it kind of accidentally comes to you
So you've walked into a museum basically in the town of Greenbrier devoted to Europe a part of your family's history and now you're watching the History Channel and your part of your family's history is showing up.
Yeah yeah it was pretty wild andand so yeah now I'm like god man we we're gonna tell the History Channel about about this and tell them that Charles Nelson was on that so they can kind of amend their little edit their program and include him but so so the crazy thing about that voyage and it was the third and final voyage and we know that because the boat it I don't know exactly what happened but I know that it went down at the same in the same general vicinity as the Titanic so it is entirely possible off the coast of Newfoundland Canada so it is entirely possible that it was you know swiped um an iceberg or something like that but the point is it was it was in sync it was it was taking on water for about a week so it wasn't a really terrible right it was immediate
It didn't go down in minutes it went down and the the passengers knew something was going up but communication back then right wouldn't have been like with the titanic where they could just you know send out an SOS yeah
Yeah exactly so this was yeah 1850 and so the the there ended up an American rescue ship kind of passing by called the Devonshire and I guess they you know kind of morse coded over to them hey we're sinking here can you get us so they start rescuing passengers and just sending the kind of the rescued dinghies sort of little back and forth boats you know 10 or 12 at a time and Charles's father John Phillip let everybody he said I'm going on the last of these boats so the family makes it to the Devonshire and John Phillip gets on that last rescue dinghy and it I don't know if it was a rogue wave or what but that boat capsized that rescue boat capsized in the transfer of passengers from Helena Sloman to the Devonshire and so he and the other I want to say it's 12 people on board died they said I mean again Titanic like this is cold cold water in the middle of October but to add on that like he didn't have a chance because he had the family fortune and gold sewn into his clothing weighing him down so he just sank to the bottom of the Atlantic pretty much immediately and so that was this crazy tale that over the years we kind of found these details and I mean there are numerous newspaper accounts and and things like that so it's pretty well documented and we just I mean it was just so wild to learn about these passenger manifests and everything like that so really cool documentation but anyway so then the rest of the family got to New York safely but of course again with nothing but the clothes on their back literally and Charles was the oldest boy in the he was the oldest sibling that was there. His older sister he was one of six kids his oldest sister who was the oldest of all of them she had already moved to the U.S. with her husband and so it was Charles and his four younger siblings who were on that boat with mom and he you know kind of he and he kind of took the place of dad I guess he and his mom kind of head of the household at that point. So he found work he was 15 years old I found work at a soap and candle factory in New York City called the Hazen Schultz firm where he worked for a couple years and with his little brother and then then he moved the family up to Cincinnati or over to Cincinnati Ohio where his older sister had moved you know big German population slower pace of life. Another kind of really interesting contextual clue that I that helps me to visualize just the world that they landed in the movie Gangs of New York takes place in the 1850s I mean that's the world that he landed in yeah you know so just pretty wild stuff and
A immigrant friendly well I wouldn't say it was an immigrant friendly New York City but it was definitely populated yeah by immigrants yeah big time and then Cincinnati was a big farm community and and a lot of well of course they're famous for pigs now so yeah I'm sure their their livestock was world famous or growing that way at that time
Oh yeah we we came to learn that in fact from a gentleman from Cincinnati when he was on a tour here at the distillery let one of our tour guides know that it was known as Porkopolis exactly for their their pig farming so. But in fact that's exactly what Charles did as when he moved to Cincinnati he became a butcher and you know as a butcher he learned a lot about the sales and production of whiskey of which again these clues that kind of keep slowly coming to me and letting you know letting us over the years form this picture is that as a so as a soap and candle maker some of your vendors would be butchers because butchers you know they take the leftover fat from animals they've butchered and they give it to you know soap and candle makers to make their soap and candles right and similarly as a butcher the animals that they're butchering while they're alive are being fed spent grains from nearby distilleries and breweries and so he had those relationships and he you know he learned from them and
Does it seem kind of interesting that he was a butcher and that it was a butcher that led you to him.
Oh yeah that is that is not lost on us butchers yeah they they have they've been a big part of our our story and our history not only back then but then today. I mean it's it's because of a butcher that we really even are in this business and in so many ways.
Wow very cool so he ends up in Nashville somehow how did that come about?
Yeah so aboutso he they get to New York 1850 he lives there for a couple years about 1852 moves to cincinnati and then about 1858 moves down to Nashville Charles does and starts his own wholesale grocery business down on what is now Second Avenue and back then it was known as Market Street in downtown Nashville and there he really had the foundational products of his business were coffee meat and whiskey. And so so what he quickly realized was that the whiskey was actually being distilled by a distillery up in Greenbrier Tennessee okay and he was... So back then it was like it's called rectifying and it was extraordinarily common where you know shopkeepers or owners would essentially take take a spirit take a whiskey and then kind of brand it themselves and have their own unique brand and label and everything and so that's what Charles did it was called Greenbrier Tennessee whiskey. Well he was as it turns out very good at that had quite a mind for marketing and sales and it quickly became one of the most popular brands in the country but what he did or at least in the state at that point so what he did was he realized that his whiskey was the demand was exceeding his supply for sure quite by quite a wide margin and so he decided to go ahead and get into this whiskey business exclusively and let the grocery business kind of go to whomever it may.
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I hope you're enjoying my interview with Andy Nelson of Nelson's Green Brier Distillery. They actually have a new loyalty club that they started up called the Coopers Club and why I bring this up is because on whiskey-lore.com I am always trying to bring you some really cool interesting information stuff you may not be able to find elsewhere and so I have created a list of all of the really cool loyalty programs that I know more than just a newsletter but something that you might actually get some perks out of. And you can find that entire list of the ones from the U.S. and Scotland and the list will continue to grow by going to whiskey-lore.com/loyalty that's whiskey-lore.com/loyalty
So now he's moving up to was this post-civil war when he moved up to Greenbrier or do you?
It was yeah so he so again yeah timeline so 1858 he moves down here to Nashville it was 1870 that he made that move so he had been in the grocery business for about 12 years by 1870 he actually let Hill and Cheek do what they wanted with their products and he purchased the distillery in Greenbrier to make it all his own he bought a patent for improved distillation and expanded the capacity by quite a wide margin and so by about 1885 he's selling 380 000 gallons of whiskey a year worldwide. I mean he is from you know coast to coast in the us we have evidence of him selling you know in Europe even Russia the Philippines and it's it's crazy to think about that pre-1900 and I but again another little contextual clues we also found that he was one of one of the first people to put whiskey in a bottle like buy sell it by the bottle instead of like the full barrel or jug. You know and that would make sense that it's a whole lot easier you can send just a few bottles you know on a ship it's a lot easier to transport those and purchase of course as an individual you get a lot more sales that way so you know that all that to say it just helped him you know expand globally in a time where it was just not like it is today.
And you get to brand it and people are seeing your name which on a on a barrel yes you could probably brand your barrel and but then what happens that barrel as it goes overseas because those were notorious times for people taking a barrel and taking a little bit out of it and adding something back into it to make it look like they hadn't ripped anything out of it.
Yeah I mean I think that one of my favorite words from back in the day would be a scalawag people doing sort of nefarious well that's a bit of a strong term but but yeah exactly I mean people kind of taking something out of a barrel and and putting their own name on it or or like adding putting additives in it that were you know were or were not healthy or safe you know things like that and just kind of tainting things you know in the sake of making their own buck off of you know someone else's hard work or whatever it may be so. So yeah exactly the the selling by the bottle was a huge help in growing his business and getting his name out there and like the brand recognition kind of thing
Yah so after that occurred he then he passed away in the in the 90s 1891 is that is that right and at during that time period I mean Jack Daniels and George Dickel were around I think George Dickel was actually bigger than Jack Daniels at that point you guys were bigger than both of them?
Yeah yeah we were we were far and away the largest in the state of Tennessee and they yeah both both George Dickel and Jack Daniel were contemporaries of Charles Nelson although they were not none of them were the same age as each other I can't remember the age difference but I mean it's within I want to say Charles and George Dickel were I think within 15 years don't quote me on the internet but something like that and then Jack was a bit younger I believe but but yeah I mean they were all certainly familiar with one another so it's just a really fascinating cool time you know some of the stories that we've heard about about them coming across each other and you know George Dickel I know had a. This is again not official George Dickel historian here but I had just heard a story that you know Charles Nelson's spot was on right basically in the center of 2nd Avenue or Market Street rather back then and at the corner of Second and Church there it is now a candy store or at least has been in the past I haven't been down there in a while but the thing was that George Dickel had like a a saloon there like right in that building and maybe there was a brothel on the second story or something like that.
Well because he had sort of a similar start as well he was he was kind of a salesman slash rectifier I think at one point also I haven't dug enough into his story but it's interesting to see some of the correlation between your two businesses because he also you know the story of when your great-great-great-grandfather passed away it was not too long after George Dickel had had passed away and he passed it on to his wife but he had told his wife to sell it although she defied him and decided to keep the business and you did you ever hear any of the details about the the move over to Louisa? Did he want her to continue on the business or do you know but
That's really interesting I I've not heard that before but we've not we've not found any evidence to suggest that he didn't want her to do you know anything with it it it just shows you know we that it's actually it's a really interesting thing because that's Louisa's role in all this is something that we have found extremely important and and honestly very a big motivation and inspiration to us. Because she again the context of the time she did not have the right to vote which you know at the time we're recording this today is the 100th anniversary of the Tennessee passing the final vote in allowing women the Federal the right to vote in the United States. So you know it's kind of a big day for us here. But but Louisa played a big part in in our business because when Charles died in 1891 she took over you know control and she she didn't sell it she kept running it and kept growing it up until statewide Prohibition hit 18 years later which is 1909. And so the thing about that that we find so fascinating is that over the years in doing our research there was so little about Louisa and what she did. I mean we knew that Charles's wife was named Louisa and then we came across her obituary and it was it said well I'm kind of paraphrasing but it said essentially like you know, born this day died this day son or daughter of so and so and blah blah blah and here's what her husband did. And the point it was like all right well that's kind of insulting. You know on one level it's like okay that's that's the time they lived in but it doesn't make it any less insulting to us in the modern day right and so we kind of thought that like we have this is an opportunity here to highlight her story and be able to like get that out there and be proud of it because she helped this company grow you know in a big way and the strength of her knowing all the obstacles she had in front of her was pretty astounding you know. Without the right to vote I mean it was a woman in the South running a business a quite by many accounts not me but by many accounts you know such a sinful enterprise in in spirits and you know all those things.
Well we're in the middle of the temperance movement at that point so she probably was getting a lot of flack from her from her female friends as well for for what she was doing so yeah
Yeah it's so so she yeah so she had a big big role in that well speaking of of that the sinful enterprise there I'll just tell another funny story a little anecdote that we heard from from aa Greenbrier Tennessee resident and it was we're we're driving with them they're showing us around town and they said you ever heard the story about this church and there's this church in Greenbrier and they said you know Charles Nelson helped helped build this church and the story is kind of funny. She said when when the folks first came by they were looking for money because they had to build this this church and they just had to get it by hook or by crook and they finally asked Charles Nelson you know at that point you know wealthy business successful businessman and and all this so they asked them for essentially an investment to help build their church. And and they said Mr Nelson we you know can can you lend us some money to you know build our church and he said well I just want you to know this, you know as you probably do already know this this money is made from from whiskey like I don't know if you approve of that yeah. And their answer was mr Nelson we don't care if this money comes from the devil himself we need this money to build our church andand so he did and so it was with some of his donations that that first church was built. But I just found that really funny giving you a fair warning here.
Yeah so speaking of money we when that distillery shut down in 1909 a hundred years later you're now on the path of trying to open the distillery yourself you're not long out of college what was it like and how did you approach going to finance what was sure to be in the millions over a period of time.
Right it was the worst I mean raising trying to raise money for that. Because okay again more context around the the time was you know 2008 the big recession hit and we had already begun like at least trying to raise some money and we heard an official no for for two solid years of trying to raise money because again we had you know at that point I guess 2000 you know 2006 I was 24 years old, Charlie was 22 and it was like people's questions of course were - all right well what do you prove it to me you know what what experience do you have do you have a business degree like? Nope. Both of us studied philosophy and it was like you have any experience in business? No. Have you ever run a distillery? no. Have you ever worked in a distillery? nope. like How do you know you can make whiskey well well trust us you know and then and with the added bonus of making whiskey and then letting it sit for four years or whatever while your money just sits there and hopefully can be sold later yeah these guys know.
What they're doing that have never made whiskey before yeah
so it was a tough sell and eventually you know we we had to keep sort of evolving the business plan and starting out a bit slower than we wanted to I mean the initial plan of course was to right well to show how naive we were I thought at the beginning I was like you know we we know some rich people surely this won't be hard to we set our time horizon is like it'll take three months to raise this money and then we will you know build a distillery put some barrels like fill fill some barrels and let it sit for four years and then start selling product well that did not happen so we figured you know kept doing our you know our business planning andand whatever kind of research we could and we found that there were you know multiple brands about 30 different labels that Charles produced one of them which one of which was called Belle Meade Bourbon and it in fact was a brand that he produced in conjunction with another company so he never actually distilled it himself we found that hold on okay so this is it was essentially it was kind of like rectifying but it wasn't it was a bit of a different um setup than than just like buying whiskey from a distiller and making it your own he worked in conjunction with this company that had the Belle Meade Distillery and they would kind of it was more of a partnership where they would distill it and then Charles Nelson would sort of bottle age and and help sell it as a the marketing force that he was at that time. So we realized okay well we could we could potentially do that and so that the point is like that helped us get a brand off the ground without having all the overhead of building our own physical distillery yet.
Right so so you basically reached out to somebody like an MGP something like that to get get started
Yep exactly so we started out with MGP and you know it took us probably a year to really nail down the blend and exactly the barrels that we wanted to use for the product got that going started started the brand and and got going got some experience under us all the while still continuing to beg for money from people. It's like we still have this dream in this plan we want to build our distillery that never left our minds. And so after you know a year or two of having the brand out there in the world and showing people that you know we can talk the lingo of distributors and and all the all that you need, it was just kind of a proof of concept for people. So eventually we're able to raise enough to build the distillery that we're now sitting in and you know got our still started laying down barrels and in fact it was not not too long ago the sixth anniversary of the sixth birthday of our first barrel that we ever filled so so that was august 2014.
So so how did you because coming out of of college with a philosophy degree you had to learn how to make whiskey some way somehow and so while you were were you learning this while Belle Meade was now getting off the ground and you were developing it?
Yep yeah so we so we bought our still from Vendome Copper and Brass in Louisville but before that we you know we'd started a relationship with them because we told everybody in the world like in the industry hey we're still trying to do this can anybody help us out kind of thing and Rob Sherman at Vendome told us about this guy who had just started a consulting gig helping out smaller craft distilleries and his name was Dave Pickerel and so he introduced us to Dave and at that time Dave had only had I want to say one other client and if I am not mistaken it was Willett or Kentucky Bourbon Distillers okay so we were technically dave's second client but it also took us way longer to get the business started than many of his subsequent clients and so we had this this aggravating game of like oh this is another of Dave's clients who has the money ready to get going meanwhile we're sitting here struggling to like get get our money raised and get going so we see all these people like come in after us and are just ready to go. They have enough money for whatever reason and. It's not like we're upset at them it was just like man what is the world
You're feeling the train is kind of passing you by while you're yeah you're doing the hard work and they got the capital to jump ahead of you in the line
Yeah so I mean it was I in retrospect of course a lot of it is due to the fact that we were 24 25 it's like who's gonna trust us for that of course so
But anyway it ended up working the way it did and yes we released Belle Meade bourbon in March of 2012, got our distillery up and running here in2014 and yeah started distiller distilling in August 2014 open to the public in November of 2014 and have since released our Greenbrier Tennessee whiskey you know this past october of 2019 and so that was really the Greenbrier Tennessee whiskey is the reason that we started this company to begin with and so that's that was a big kind of a big relief that we you know finally got to the starting line in some ways.
And it's a and I've had it and I really like it and it's ait is a wheated Tennessee whiskey and as far as I know it's the only or it was at that point well there are other Tennessee whiskeys now coming about but for the size and you guys at the at the stature that you've gotten to it's kind of like you're pushing out into the market ahead and is was that a move that you made because you were following a recipe that you had from the family or was that a strategic decision because the Dickels and the Daniels had already gone into the the rye version of of whiskey.
A little both I mean it was it really honestly just was because it was the original recipe and that's that it just happens to be that I was very I mean I think we were all very excited about it because of exactly your point. Like that it's different than they're yeah again they're I know a lot of the distillers in Tennessee so but I can't say for sure but like it's one of the only wheated Tennessee whiskeys for sure and so that was very exciting and it certainly was the only one when we first got plans to do this whole thing.
Right it's it's shocking to see how many distilleries are popping up so quickly in Tennessee because when I started thinking about traveling across Tennessee to go to distilleries I just looked at that map that I had that I got a year and a half ago I think it was yeah and they had 24 distilleries listed and when I was at the first distillery on this leg I picked up a new one and I looked and I was like 37.
Yeah I mean it's almost double
Yeah it's crazy yeah it's growing in a hurry but when you talk about only really three distilleries up until 2011 it's like there was just this you know interest probably has always been there it's just legally nobody's been able to do it.
Yeah yeah it's pretty wild too because when we I remember when we were first starting this we we found the history and everything and we're like this is just a big big plan of ours and I remember people telling us like well you know you're really getting in at the right time because you know craft distilleries or craft whiskeys really booming and I like I had no idea that that was actually the case. You know and it's not like we're doing it because it was good timing like it just happened to be that that's the day we discovered the butcher and then the you know the old distillery so. You know it serendipitous I suppose but you know it worked out well
So we'll talk about the label on the bottle because that that label adds some history to it doesn't it?
Yeah I mean so that's the label you'll see the Tennessee whiskey is as close to the original label as we could get you know we had to add a couple little things on there for for legality's sake but you look at an old bottle next to that new bottle and we it's almost as it's as close as you can get. I you know one of my favorite things is that it's so it's there's it's so kind of busy in some respect but it makes it stand out and the funny thing is there's you know the the actual brand name is one of the smaller words on the label and so it kind of breaks all these rules of modern day marketing and advertising and such but that's exactly what I think is the appealing thing about it that like that's why it stands out more you know it's not just one clean single letter in one color it's like oh that looks really cool and old.
So you have to send a thank you to your great great great grandfather oh yeah for giving you a retro label,you know a century plus later
Marty McFly where are you at pat on the back talk to him yeah.
So there's another interesting element that I found when I was looking at your your bell mead label and that is the horse that's on it Bonnie Scotland yeah how did you go about discovering that story and can you do you have details on that it's very interesting his pedigree.
Yeah so Bonnie Scotland was a famous race horse at the Belle Meade Horse Farm back in the day and he is one of the founders of what they call the Northern Dancer bloodline and so a lot of his descendants are you know kind of packed in in today the modern day Kentucky Derby most horses that run in the Derby nowadays can trace their bloodline back to Bonnie Scotland including War Admiral Seabiscuit Secretariat some some big time horses so that was kind of a cool yeah cool addition
And so when did you discover that the the first one did you discover this label for Belle Meade because there's another brand that you didn't really have to design that that bottle label it just came came with the package.
Right we discovered that oh god I don't know what year it was but I mean it was it was somewhere in between you know 2006 and 2010in in the midst of all of our our research and stuff so we found this newspaper advertisement it was it was a newspaper from May first 1885 the Daily American and we have it up in our tasting room right now and there's about a quarter page ad for Belle Meade whiskeys and it shows the original label and everything so that's where we found it and just kind of a cool cool old graphic there as well.
So are you going to go beyond a Tennessee whiskey do you have further plans are you kind of just enjoying the launch of this one right now.
Kind of just enjoying the launch of this one for the moment but yeah I mean we're we've never been shy about saying you know we're we're not we're not trying to you know just have a nice regional business or anything like we've it's always been our plan to take over the world with this you know so so we definitely want to grow and and build up more of the the brands that Charles had and more you know line extensions and such so but yeah for right now it's like it's hard to do a whole bunch at one time so we got our hands full with this for now.
And Belle Meade is nationwide
So how where is Nelson's Green Brier at the moment?
So at the moment as of you know August 2020 we are in I think we may only be in Tennessee I think we're about to get into South Carolina
Wow all right that's good yeah yeah exactly nice that's good
Honestly like now we've been then the nice thing it's kind of a weird thing because as the business grows it's like we we get more employees and people and and kind of sort of specialize in things so to speak and so I I'm more of the production distillation world and Charlie is more sales and marketing and stuff so he's more you know as more and more happens there's like just so much going on and it's like if I tried to stay in all of those categories I would go nuts so I'm like. There's some days where I'd you know like oh cool we we're in a new new state now that's cool all right I'm almost glad I didn't know that yeah because there used to be so much stress for me to do it.
Well congratulations on your success and I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.
Thank you yeah no problem thanks for coming in.
I hope you enjoyed this interview with Andy Nelson from Nelson's Green Brier Distillery something to check out if you head into Nashville Tennessee someday very cool distillery and one I still need to actually get to see all the way through but that will happen someday.
Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life LLC. Research and production by Drew Hannush for more information transcripts and show notes just head to whiskey-lore.com/episodes and until next time cheers and slainte mhath.