His descendants discovered that they had whiskey in their bloodline and decided to join in the wave of new whiskey distillers sweeping the spirits industry, launching Green Brier Distillery.
The Green Brier Whiskey brand was hugely popular in Tennessee and beyond before statewide Prohibition tolled in 1909. On a trip to visit a butcher in the town of Greenbrier in Robertson County, the Nelson boys and their dad drank from the spring that provided the water for their family's heritage brands.
Visiting the town's historical society, the younger Nelsons discovered two empty bottles of the old brand, and something clicked in their heads that they must try to bring back the old days.
Starting a distillery from scratch is a tall order, even if your family name is already associated with the industry. Picture calling a banker's office and asking for a loan based on this pitch: "We've never made any whiskey yet, but we'd like to borrow enough money to build a fairly substantial chemical engineering facility. Then we'll put our product in barrels in a dark barn for at least four or five years and hopefully we'll have something good to sell after that. So what do you think, Mr. Drysdale? Mr. Drysdale? Hello?"
The Nelson boys are sharp enough to realize that distilling is only part of making great whiskey. A major portion of the process is how you blend and finish the whiskey, and the boys have sought out an established distiller to help them out with the first release of Green Brier Distilling Co. They tasted and selected every barrel that went into the original edition, and then supervised the blending of their bourbon baby, which lies in repose somewhere in Kentucky. This is a very common practice and some of your favorite spirits are actually distilled somewhere other than where they are aged and bottled. (Cough, cough, Bulleit, cough.)
What matters is the resulting product, and Belle Meade Bourbon (named after one of their ancestor's brands) is a fine first effort. Made in small batches of just four barrels each, the Belle Meade Bourbon employs two unique mash bills and two special yeast strains chosen by the Nelsons.
Lighter in color and body than some other Kentucky bourbons, this bourbon is packaged in an appropriately old-school label with an attractive wood and cork closure. The grain mix is high in rye content, with a percentage of about 30 percent of the spicy grain. Extremely smooth and spicy on the front end, Belle Meade Bourbon has a nice long fruity finish that exhibits the prototypical flavors of rye. It's aged between 5 1/2 and 7 1/2 years, depending on the specific barrel that is chosen, and the oak has contributed a mellow sweetness to the party. On the whole, it is a novel addition to the $35 (plus or minus a buck or two) small batch/premium bourbon range.
The ultimate goal is to continue producing Belle Meade Bourbon and to eventually expand the offering to include more items under the historic Green Brier brand. They still have the original recipe for the original Green Brier Whiskey, which was especially unique for its time being a wheated whiskey, similar to the Van Winkle and Weller brands that people camp out overnight on the sidewalk to buy in local liquor stores.
Plans for building their own distillery are in the works, but for now the Nelsons have plenty on their plate marketing and expanding distribution of the Belle Meade brand, which is certainly not just for the country club set. Try some out this week and report back here what you think.