As the story goes, the Nelson family first came to America on a boat from Germany in 1850. Charles Nelson was 15 when his father sold all of the family’s possessions, converted all of it to gold, and had a special suit made so the gold could be sewn into the clothing. On the ship to America there were incredible storms, and a lifeboat containing the Nelson family capsized. With all the gold sewn into his jacket, Charles’ father sank. However, Charles, his mother and his 5 siblings made it the rest of the way to America. After living in New York and Cincinnati, Charles eventually started a wholesale grocery business in Nashville where he sold coffee, meat, and whiskey. Charles eventually bought the distillery where his whiskey was sourced, and was one of the first to bottle whiskey (as opposed to selling in jugs or barrels). Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery quickly became one of the largest distilleries in the country, known as “Old No. 5” because it was fifth registered distillery. Charles Nelson died in 1891, at which point his wife Louisa took over the business (the only woman running such a business of that size and scale at the time) until Prohibition hit Tennessee in 1909. After that, the once renowned distillery was seemingly forgotten.
Fast forward to 2006, when Andy and Charlie Nelson began the trek from Nashville to Green Brier to visit a local butcher for their father. “We knew the story of Charles’ father falling off the boat, but we didn’t really believe it.” says Andy Nelson, head of operations at the family distillery, “And we knew there was some kind of distillery in Green Brier, but we didn’t know much about it.” On the way to Green Brier, the family stopped at a gas station where they saw a historical marker that said “Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery” in big bold letters. Knowing that historical markers aren’t typically handed out, the family’s interest was piqued. When they arrived at the butchershop, the Nelsons asked their butcher what he knew about the old distillery. He got a smile on his face and said, “Well, look across the street there. You’re standing on the land where the old distillery used to be.”
”That was the moment that was really hair-raising. We looked across the street and it wasn’t unlike anything you would see in Kentucky.” The family went across the street to see the barrel warehouses, and drank from the spring still running clear and cold in the heat of summer. The butcher suggested that the Nelsons visit the Green Brier historical center. There, they found a huge room with tons of newspaper articles and information on the distillery that had been dug up. “The one major thing that immediately captured our attention was two original bottles of whiskey from Green Brier Distillery with our name on it. That was really the final moment when we realized this is what we’re here to do.”
“It’s easy to be told this story and just accept that it happened, but it’s really more truly amazing if you can transport yourself into that time. It was such an epiphany for me when I was watching Gangs of New York, looked at the timeline, and realized that Charles Nelson was living in New York, in that time,” says Andy. “Specifically with Louisa, her role is all the more impressive when you realize she didn’t even have the right to vote. Those little bits of historical context that put everything in perspective makes all the difference.”
“If it weren’t for the Nashville community, we wouldn’t be where we are. They really propped us up when we had nothing,” says Charlie Nelson, who manages the sales and marketing for the family distillery. “We’re very thankful for the support we’ve experienced. We love doing different collaborations within our community, whether it’s with the brewery or something like this with Peter Nappi.”
“Most of what’s been documented of Charles shows that he was very giving in the community.” adds Joel, the Creative Manager for the distillery. “He started a music program and was well-known for paying his employees very well. Everything that’s written about him is very endearing, because he was very involved in giving back and in the success of the community as a whole. That was the Nelson way then, and it’s the Nelson way now.” One of the ways the Nelson’s recognize their community is through the Louisa Nelson Awards, to honor the incredible accomplishments of women in the community. Each year, three Nashville-area business women who embody the characteristics of their ancestor are chosen for this award and the winners choose a local charity to which the Nelson’s make a significant donation.
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