Monday, July 21, 2014

Charles Nelson and the Green Brier Distillery

As noted in the past, when I find substantial biographical material already written about a prominent whiskey man, it is my practice to use it, not reinvent what is reasonably comprehensive.  So it is with Charles Nelson, shown here, a Tennessee whiskey distiller and dealer with a substantial record of accomplishment.   In this case, the biography was written by Nelson’s great-great-great grandsons, Andy and Charlie Nelson, who in 2012 began bottling a whiskey they said was from their ancestor’s recipes.  On their website they told this story about Nelson and his Green Brier Distillery:

Charles Nelson was born July 4, 1835 in Hagenow, a small town in the Mecklenburg-Schwerin state of northern Germany. He was the eldest of six children whose father, John Philip Nelson, owned a soap and candle factory. When Charles was 15, his father decided he wanted to move his family to America for a better life. He sold his soap and candle factory, converted all of the family’s earthly possessions to gold and had special clothing made to hold all of that gold on his person during the journey. In late October of 1850, he gathered his family and boarded the Helena Sloman to set sail for America.

As fate would have it, on November 19 of that year, intense storms and gale force winds sent many of the nearly 180 passengers overboard. John Philip Nelson was one of those unfortunate souls and weighed down by the family fortune, he sank directly to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Luckily, the rest of the family arrived safely in New York, but with only the clothes on their backs, and 15 year-old Charles found himself man of the house.

Penniless yet determined, Charles and his brother began doing the only thing they knew how to do: make soap and candles. After saving some money, the Nelson family moved west, settling in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was there that Charles, merely 17 years of age, entered the butcher business and acquainted himself with a number of fellow craftsmen who educated him in the art of producing and selling distilled spirits, particularly whiskey.

Several years later, just before the start of the Civil War, Charles set out for Nashville seeking a fresh start and another American dream took tenuous root. He opened a new grocery store built on the foundation of his three best-selling products: coffee, meat and whiskey. These products quickly built Charles a reputation that went unmatched in Nashville’s merchant circles. His honesty and fair dealings brought about great prosperity for his business as well as an elevated social status in the community. Very quickly, Charles realized that the demand for his whiskey far exceeded his supply, revealing to him the opportunity to focus solely on whiskey.

....As for Charles, he bought the distillery [shown here] that was making his whiskey in Greenbrier, TN, and a patent for improved distillation, and expanded the production capacity in order to keep up with demand. With this expansion, Nelson was not only creating more jobs, he was making a name for Tennessee Whiskey. By 1885, there were hundreds of whiskey distilleries in Tennessee, but only a handful was producing significant volume. The three most notable were Cascade (now George Dickel), Jack Daniel’s, and Charles Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery. That year, Charles Nelson sold nearly 380,000 gallons of Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey in markets ranging from Jacksonville, FL to San Francisco, CA to Paris, France, while Jack Daniel’s production capacity was just 23,000 gallons.

In addition to the volume he sold of his own whiskey, Nelson was one of the first to actually bottle and sell whiskey rather than selling it by the jug or the barrel. The distillery, which was commonly known as “Old Number Five” due to the fact that it was registered distillery number five and was located in the fifth tax district, became a favorite stop of federal regulators and tax inspectors due to the warmth and hospitality shown to them by Nelson and his employees. It is safe to say that by introducing the category of Tennessee Whiskey to the world and offering a superior product, Charles Nelson had indeed become a household name.

After decades of great struggle and brilliant triumph, Charles Nelson passed away on December 13, 1891. His wife Louisa assumed control of the business, becoming one of the only women to ever run a distillery. In 1909, statewide Prohibition forced Louisa to discontinue operations and Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery closed its doors.

Addendum: An article in Wikipedia added information about Nelson and Green Brier to describe why the  distillery site, one that includes the still standing barrel house shown below, merits inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places:

Nelson's Greenbrier Distillery was a major contributor to the economy and growth of the town of Greenbrier during the late 19th century. It employed about 25 people directly and provided a market for farmers' corn, locally made barrels, and other products. Its presence resulted in the construction of a railroad line and station in Greenbrier.

Whiskey production at the Greenbrier distillery ended after Tennessee enacted prohibition on July 1, 1909, but whiskey that had been produced before that time continued to be sold in other states until 1915. Although Robertson County whiskey had enjoyed a reputation for superior quality, the county's whiskey industry was not revived after Prohibition ended.

The property's listing on the National Register reflects its importance in industry and commerce, as well as its association with proprietor Charles Nelson, who was prominent in areas including banking, farming, and barrel-making. The listed property is a 5-acre area, although the distillery occupied a much larger area. Most of the distillery buildings are no longer present. The only historic buildings that remain are an early 20th-century warehouse, a spring house that supplied fresh water to the distillery, and a barrel house. The site includes a dam across Rocky Fork Creek. One old mash tub and remnants of building foundations are found on the grounds.

And a last word from Charles Nelson’s obituary:

“Mr. Nelson was in the fullest sense a public-spirited citizen. Every enterprise intended for the good of Nashville received his hearty support and generous help. He was a man not of words but of actions.” – Nashville Daily American (Dec. 14, 1891)

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