While we were in Nashville shooting the lookbook for the Nashville Short Run Shirting Collection, many of our friends recommended that we try Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery’s Belle Meade Bourbon before heading back to Richmond. I had my first glass — of many during my time in the Music City — with dinner at the Patterson House and the taste was exceptional; highlighting several spicy and sweet flavors that were followed with an impressively smooth finish. After getting back to Richmond I caught up with Charlie Nelson, who co-founded Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery with his brother and serves as the brand’s President, and learned of Nelson’s incredibly rich history as well as discovered what else is in the works for the revived distillery.
What is the connection between Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery and the pioneering Tennessean distiller, Charles Nelson?
My great-great-great grandfather, Charles Nelson, originally started Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery. He produced the original Tennessee whiskey before Jack Daniel’s and was also one of the first to bottle and sell whiskey, rather than sell it by the barrel or jug. His distillery was one of the largest in the country before prohibition. In 1909 statewide prohibition hit Tennessee and forced Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery to shut down.
It’s been a long time since the beginning of prohibition, when did you and your brother decide to revive the Nelson Distillery?
Almost seven years ago, my dad, my brother, and I went to buy some meat from a butcher, and it turned out that the butcher lived on part of the land where the original Charles Nelson Distillery had been. My brother and I knew that our family had been in the whiskey business in some respect but we didn’t know if it was much more than a glorified moonshine operation.
We asked the butcher if he knew anything about the old distillery and he said ‘Yeah, look across the street,’ and we saw an old barrel warehouse that was still standing, the original spring was still running, and we drank from that spring. Then the butcher sent us to the Green Brier Historical Society where we saw a couple of original bottles with the Nelson name on them and we just fell in love. My brother and I looked at each other and sort of knew what the other was thinking, and as cheesy as it sounds, was our destiny.
Why did you choose Belle Meade Bourbon as the first brand to distill?
We started out using a contract distillery, and the reason we came out with Belle Meade Bourbon first was because it is a brand that was originally produced by Charles Nelson in conjunction with another company. By using a contract distillery, we aren’t making it 100% on our own and we wanted to keep this inline with the history of the brand.
There are many bourbons and whiskeys from Tennessee, what sets Belle Meade Bourbon apart from the others?
Belle Meade bourbon is a small batch high rye bourbon and is as close to the original recipe as we could get. It has 30% rye; most bourbon recipes use about 10-12% rye. With ours being about 30%, this high amount of rye brings out white peppery spices on the front end and caramel flavors come in from the barrel aging process. We use two yeast strains that work really well together to create a nice smooth finish. You also get some floral and fruity tastes, cherry and plum. I think it’s the best of both worlds between a bourbon and rye whiskey.
Is the label on the bottle the original Belle Meade label that was used?
The label on the bottle is nearly identical to the original from over a hundred years ago. The two horses on the label were stud of the Belle Meade Mansion — which was one of the nations leading thoroughbred farms at the time. The horse on the right is Bonnie Scotland who began the bloodline that includes War Admiral, Seabiscuit, and Secretariat.
Outside of Nashville, where can Belle Meade Bourbon be found?
You can find it throughout the state of Tennessee. We are also distributed in Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Washington, D.C. and we are just starting to get distribution in South Carolina and Arkansas.
What are the major plans for the distillery for this, as well as the following years?
We are building out our own facility that we hope to have open by this summer. We will start distilling a handful of original brands and recipes including The Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey, which will be our signature brand and uses the exact recipe as the original Tennessee Whiskey that Charles Nelson produced. Our distribution network will also expand and we’ve had a lot of interest from most states in the country as well as interest inside Tennessee.
Belle Meade is a great tasting bourbon and I highly recommend a round if you are in Tennessee or a state where the bourbon is sold — hopefully having the bourbon in Virginia isn’t too far off. For more information on Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, visit their website. If you happen to be in Nashville this weekend, make sure to stop by the Ledbury Nashville Pop-Up Shop located inside of the Peter Nappi showroom this Friday and Saturday, we’ll be serving Belle Meade Bourbon all weekend long!