At Nashville’s Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, one family’s Fourth of July celebration is steeped in history, pride, and plenty of whiskey
The irresistible smell of smoky pulled pork mingles with the heady scent of caramelized oak inside Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery. It’s coming from the barbecue spread that’s just been laid out near the entrance of the aging room, where, among other things, a four-year-old Tennessee whiskey is just finishing its time in the barrel. Several generations of the Nelson family are here, all in celebration of a quintessential American dream.
Brothers Andy and Charlie Nelson founded the distillery, which produces Belle Meade Bourbon and that soon-to-be- released Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey, and their backstory is woven into the fabric of Middle Tennessee. It all began as a way to honor their great-great-great-grandfather Charles Nelson. He was a German immigrant who arrived in the US at the age of 15 with nothing but the clothes on his back. After forays into candle- and soap-making, butchery and the grocery business—where he noticed a seemingly insatiable demand for the whiskey he stocked—he bought his supplier’s distillery in Greenbrier, Tennessee, in 1870. He expanded production, building the distillery into one of the most prolific in the country, and was one of the first to bottle whiskey in the state, as opposed to using barrels or jugs. When Charles died in 1891, his wife, Louisa, ran the business until Prohibition took effect in the state in 1909.
It’s a story the Nelson brothers have heard their whole lives. But the family history came into greater focus in 2006, when their father, Bill, drove them out to Greenbrier and they saw the site of the original facility. After exploring it, they walked over to the town’s historical society where they found two preserved bottles of Nelson’s Tennessee Whiskey. Then and there, Andy and Charlie decided to revive the family business.
After three years of research and planning, the brothers brought the business back to life exactly one hundred years after it closed. Initially, they sourced whiskey from an Indiana distillery, selling it as Belle Meade Bourbon. But by 2014, they had opened their own facility inside Nashville’s former Marathon Motor Works auto factory, where they turned to distilling, bottling, and aging the original Nelson’s whiskey recipe. They introduced an early, two-year-old version aged in smaller barrels called Nelson’s 108 in 2017. This year, they’ll release that same recipe, aged for a full four years in 53-gallon barrels, as Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey. And for the brothers and their extended family, there’s no better day to toast that release than July fourth. Patriarch Charles Nelson was born on the date and threw his own birthday bashes. (Jack Daniel and George Dickel, those other two Tennessee whiskey legends, were known to attend.)
The Nelson family tree is broad but tightly connected. At Thanksgiving, there might be sixty- five people gathered across multiple tables, with several generations present. The matriarch of the family is now Mary Elizabeth Nelson, who goes by Aunt Betty. She was one of six children and is Andy and Charlie’s great-aunt. At festive family gatherings like this, she still holds court. The brothers lean in close as Betty shares a story about a handshake deal Charles Nelson once made to construct a building that still stands in downtown Nashville. Around them, a cast of family members, including cousins, aunts, uncles, and a few family dogs catch up and play games. The lilting sounds of Americana tunes drift out as trays of Belle Meade Bourbon frozen old fashioneds are passed around.
When it’s time to eat, the crowd makes its way to a summertime feast. The brothers have enlisted their friends at Jim ’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q to handle the heavy meats; there’s a smoked ham, barbecue chicken, and pulled pork to start. Another table is loaded with an array of side dishes, which have come from the Yellow Porch, an institution in town. Owners Katie and Gep Nelson (Andy and Charlie’s aunt and uncle) have been running the sunny, Southern cafe for more than twenty years. Today, they’ve brought their cheddar fritters with spicy aioli and chow chow, along with black bean burgers, and a salad studded with port-poached cherries. To finish: Katie and Gep’s coconut cream pie, treats from the Christie Cookie Co., and a barrel-shaped birthday cake made by Nashville’s Baked on 8th in honor of Charles’ birthday.
While the food, and clearly the drinks, are highlights of this family fête, they’re also here for the conversation. As Charlie notes, everyone’s a storyteller. Bill shares the background of his great uncle and Andy’s namesake, Frank Maxwell Andrews, a lieutenant general who founded the US Army Air Forces, which later became the US Air Force. (Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington, DC, was named for him.) Aunt Betty brings up her brother, Ed, who helped bring the Japanese consulate to Nashville—the city now celebrates an annual cherry blossom festival to honor that continued relationship.
And then there is Louisa, “a shrewd business woman,” one relative confides. “She was a very independent woman, way ahead of her time.” To honor her, the distillery holds the annual Louisa Nelson Awards, giving accolades to visionary female leaders in Nashville. An aunt, Carrington Fox, serves on the awards selection committee with Charlie and Andy. “The guys take it really seriously,” Carrington says. “It goes way beyond a marketing moment. It’s about their values and how they want to see the city move forward.”
There’s a palpable pride at the party. In fact, many family members are investors in the distillery. “What I like to see is that these two boys are working together and doing it so well,” Bill says. And, he notes, the family rallied behind them once they got to work. “When we started, everybody just pitched in. Everyone really wanted to see it come together. The way it’s all happened is kind of like magic,” he says.
And soon, all of their work will pay off. “We’ve spent the past thirteen years preparing for this launch,” Charlie says. “We just want to do the best that we can to honor the past.”