Nelson's Green Brier Distillery: Every Family has Its Secrets

A more cynical person will feel like they've been had, by the time the tour guide gets to the big reveal at Nelson's Green Brier Distillery in Nashville. I can appreciate a good corporate mythology, so have to give the Nelson Brothers some credit. Here's the gist of the story:

In a 1850, a 15-year-old German immigrant named Charles Nelson boarded a ship head for New York, along with his family. Why? So they're descendants could be fat, immigrant-fearing, social-media-addicted Americans. Or in shorthand: a better life.

It seems like immigrants stories swing between biblical hardships and Forrest-Gump-like accidents of luck. Herr Nelson's is no different. His father supposedly fell overboard the steamship and sunk to his death, due to the gold bars he sewed into the lining of his jacket. There went all the family's savings.

Starting from scratch and moving to Nashville, Charles and his brother bounced around different manufacturing trades, crossing paths (and sometimes comparing distilling techniques) with a history textbook list of characters: Teddy Roosevelt, Jack Daniel, Elijah Craig, you get the idea. The brothers go from manufacturing pig lard soap and candles to producing 380,000 of whiskey per year, in a relatively short amount of time.

Prohibition came early to Tennessee: 1909. That marked the end of both the distillery and its memory; until nearly one hundred years later. Brothers Andy and Charlie Nelson were road-tripping through rural Tennessee.  They stopped for gas and only by chance noticed a historical marker. It referred to the old warehouse behind it, stating it was once the rickhouse for Charles Nelson's Green Brier distillery. The street they were on was "Distillery Road" and the nearby Greenbrier Historical Society was able to produce two intact bottles of their great-great-granddaddy's whiskey. How do you like that for a lucky find? The fate of these two brothers was now decided. They learned all they could about their 3xgreat-grandfather and his whiskey recipe, and opened up the latter day Green Brier Distillery in Nashville in 2009.

I think that's a narrative up there with Jack Daniel's own. As you can imagine, the tour and artifacts are worthy of a museum. Shout out to our talented tour guide, Justin, leading us around on crutches no less.

Judging from the amount of barrels stacked in their warehouse, Nelson's Green Brier puts out considerable volume. All of it is a variant of corn mash whiskey made in the Tennessee style (also called the "Lincoln County Process," meaning the whiskey gets filtered through charcoal prior to barreling).

At the tasting bar, Justin tells me he can't reveal the actual mash bill. Only that it has 70% corn and once the Nelson Brothers tried out Charles Nelson's original recipe, they decided to increase the rye portion by 4%.

White Whiskey, 91 proof, unaged. It has a nose of sweet pear and a palate of grain and grape, with a smooth finish.

Bourbon, 90 proof, aged six to eight years. These bottles come from a blend of four barrels and the Green Brier website informs me the rye content of the mash is 30%. The nose is a great balance of sweet grain and sour apple. The palate is like spicy rye bread, with the slightest hint of citrus.

There's a bourbon, also 90 proof, finished for two to three months in used madeira wine barrels. These casks will be used twice on different bourbon batches. It has a heavy grape and buttery nose. The palate reminds me of bitter grapefruit, melon and woody notes.

Last, I tried a single barrel cask strength bourbon, at 99 proof. These ones are typically aged around ten years. The nose is deep chocolate and caramel, with just a slight chemically hint, as if of glue. The palate is a satisfying mix of fruit/plum and peppery spice.

The brothers aren't around for me to meet. As I exit past the museum-like walls -and through the gift shop!- I can easily imagine their smiling, bearded likeness someday joining the black-and-white portraits of their distant family memebrs. And I wonder: what will posterity make of their happenchance discovery of a roadside marker, and the subsequent trail of whiskey bottles that has led here? Time, and maybe well-placed marketing, will tell.


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