Brothers Andy and Charlie Nelson fully awakened to their rich distilling family history in 2006 when their father Bill took them to Green Brier. Green Brier was home to the original Nelson Distillery, which closed in 1909 during Tennessee Prohibition. Their great-great-great-grandfather Charles Nelson built the distillery, sourced water from a pure spring on the grounds and distilled whiskeys.
In the late 1800s, Green Brier was the nation’s largest producer of Tennessee Whiskey, selling close to 380,000 gallons of whiskey annually, more than ten times the production capacity of other Tennessee brands at the time, even Jack Daniel’s.
As Loyola Marymount grads, Andy and Charlie obtained degrees in the humanities, and both have a deep love of history but had no experience running a distillery. From that day forward, the brothers were driven to restore the family whiskey business. They spent three years researching, seeking capital and preparing to revive the family legacy with new vision, resurrecting Nelson’s Green Brier Whiskey, taking inspiration from Charles’s original recipes.
Launching in 2011, they opened a distillery and tasting room in Nashville in 2014, releasing spirits like Belle Meade Bourbon, BMB Special Cask Finish Series and Nelson’s First 108 Tennessee Whiskey. Accolades and awards followed, including multiple Double Gold medals from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. In the Special Cask Finish series, they experimented with finishing high rye Belle Meade Bourbon in sherry, Cognac and Madeira casks, going further with the limited edition Craftsman Cask Collection, where they finished bourbon in honey and Mourvédre and Tannat wine casks.
This year, they plan to launch their new flagship product: four-year-aged Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey, the beloved whiskey of the original Nelson’s distillery in its heyday. They also released the first of their new liqueurs line, Louisa’s Liqueur, honoring their great-great-great-grandmother.
Here, in his own words, head distiller Andy Nelson talks to us about what led him into distilling, how to grow a spirits brand and what is exciting him most right now in the distilling world.
What led you to distilling and spirits?
In 2006, my brother Charlie and I discovered that our great-great-great-grandfather, Charles Nelson, had been one of the largest producers creating the most popular brand of Tennessee Whiskey in the pre-Prohibition era. That realization completely altered the course of our lives, and we decided to dedicate our future to bringing the family distilling business back to life. Over the past decade, we have aimed to honor the past and embrace the future by recreating his original pioneering spirits while also offering some exciting new labels to our portfolio of bourbons and Tennessee Whiskeys.
What spirits do you consider your flagship spirits and why?
It’s hard to say that our flagship spirit is anything other than Belle Meade Bourbon at this point, but it is. Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey is the very reason we started the company and got the distillery up and running, and we plan to have this be our flagship spirit when it is released. Until that point, we will continue to proudly offer multiple line extensions of Belle Meade Bourbon, especially our Special Cask Finished labels that we’ve had the good fortune of being awarded with high honors. Beginning with our sherry-cask-finished Belle Meade Bourbon, we’ve expanded our offerings for our Special Cask Finished line, the most recent [Belle Meade Honey Cask Finish] of which has just won the Double Gold and Best Special Barrel-Finish Bourbon award at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Tell us about your distilling process — what is unique or specific to what you do?
We use charcoal mellowing in our particular process of making a Tennessee Whiskey. This is the process of running our fresh distillate through a bed of sugar maple charcoal before it goes into a barrel, thereby cleaning up the mouthfeel and removing many impurities. We also use wheat in our mash bill as opposed to rye, which is certainly unique in the world of Tennessee Whiskey. As far as the actual distillation process goes, we have a lower distillation proof and lower barrel-entry proof than most in an effort to retain as much of the original flavor and influence from the original source ingredients/grains as possible. This results in a more flavorful yield from the barrel over several years of aging.
How does living in Nashville determine the style/focus of your business?
Being located in Nashville is essential to the style and focus of our distilling business. Our company is deeply rooted in the history of our family and, of course, the history of the city. It is the face and identity of our business. Nashville’s unique identity within American and global culture makes it very appealing. The city’s culture is surrounded by entertainment, hospitality and authenticity, which all goes hand-in-hand with our business personalities, making it a natural fit for the home of our distillery.
How have you grown your brand at bars and beyond?
We grow our brand through hard work and patience. We have spent, and continue to spend, a significant amount of time in bars and restaurants talking to bartenders and building personal relationships. You can have the best-tasting whiskey on the planet but the brand won’t grow if you don’t have good relationships with the gatekeepers. It’s all about showing your face and being a good representative for your brand, and we’ve always kept that close at heart in our brand-building journey.
What advice would you give to fellow distillers looking to get their spirits into bars?
Talk to bartenders and liquor store owners, taste them on your product, be a decent human being and make yourself top of mind for those gatekeepers. At the end of the day, we’re all human, and human interaction is what people remember. Be persistent and be patient. Sometimes you’ll come across someone who is rude or unwilling to listen, but you never know what else they have going on. Keep coming back, be polite and have patience. People appreciate that.
What is exciting you most about the current climate in spirits and cocktails?
I love that distillers are getting more innovative and creative with what they are producing. The classic brown spirits are classic for a reason, and there’s something appealing about simplicity that is undeniable. That said, all of the special cask finishing is getting very exciting, too. I love that sherry seems to be coming back in cocktail culture, and the collaborations between distillers, brewers and vintners are really a thrill to witness. I love the amazing packaging that I am continuing to see in the market, too. The visual aesthetic in craft spirits is truly impressive and stimulating.