By spring 2014, there are two places the Nelson family fortune will lay: within the soon-to-open doors of the revived Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Nashville and at the bottom of the Atlantic, somewhere between Germany and America. That’s the presumed final resting place of Andy and Charlie Nelson’s great-great-great-great grandfather, John Philip Nelson, who in 1850 succumbed to a storm at sea on his family’s journey to the American dream. Of the 180 who went into the sea, Nelson had the heaviest secret: gold—the sum of his family’s fortune—sewn into the lining of his suit.
With son Charles quickly shunted to the helm of a newly emigrated but now penniless family, he first pursued his father’s trade of soap and candles and then tackled the fine arts of coffee, butchery, and whiskey. (Sound familiar, Portland?) All businesses were successful (the coffee’s rumored to have been the inspiration for Maxwell House’s “Good to the last drop”). But Prohibition—that great historical bummer and unlikely midwife of the chic speakeasy—shuttered Nelson’s distillery, which outsold Jack Daniels to the tune of 357,000 gallons in 1885.
Fast forward 120 years to a generation coming of age in the midst of a craft explosion, including Tennessee whiskey heirs apparent Charlie and Andy Nelson and Mixologist Doug Monroe of The Patterson House in Nashville. (Tennessee whiskey is straight bourbon whiskey, meaning the corn-based spirit is barrel aged at least 4 years. Today, most brands simply use the label “bourbon.”) The trio is part of a movement that’s slaking thirsts with distinctly Southern potables such as Belle Meade Bourbon and cocktails like Monroe’s The Golden Suit.
Bourbon is at home in Tennessee, but brand diversity isn’t, at least not as much as it could be. “Since Prohibition was repealed, there have really only been two big brands: Jack Daniels and George Dickel,” says Charlie, co-proprietor of Nelson’s Green Brier and whiskey revivalist. (Among the entrenched distillers, there’s also Collier and McKeel, and Pritchard’s.) Even after the United States spirited the passing of the 21st Amendment, Tennessee’s own state prohibition and blue laws limited alcohol production to just three counties—a state of affairs that remained unchanged until 2009. Now with 41 counties free to produce, says Charlie, “There is certainly room for more [distillers], especially the brand that helped create the category [of Tennessee whiskey].” Newly enamored of their family heritage, and finally free to ferment among a growing population of small batch distillers, Andy and Charlie took it upon themselves to revive their namesake spirit. And they’re taking it slow.
“Everything in the whiskey business is a long and slow process,” says Charlie, who sought out investments while Andy, surprised owner of an attuned palate, worked on the recipes. Given aging time, those awkward dry versus wet county issues, and the onus of resurrecting one of the first whiskey houses in Tennessee, it’s a bit of a miracle that Nelson’s Green Brier got its first blend out there in just eight years (with the help of batch contracting). Even more miraculous is a revenue flow that will finally grant them distilling independence come the opening of Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in 2014. “We’re one of the first and only companies to start out by sourcing product and growing a brand well enough and fast enough to be able to take those revenues and build our own distillery,” says Andy. “A lot of people can get caught in that [contracting] cycle and not be able to break free from the dependency of contract distilling.”
This is whiskey, so “fast” is relative. “We spent a lot of time tasting different barrels from different distilleries—different mash bills, yeast strains, at different ages and proofs,” Andy says. “Ultimately, we came up with a blend of four barrels per batch, using two different mash bills and two different yeast strains.” Unlike Jack Daniels, Dickel, and Collier and McKeel, Nelson’s Belle Meade Bourbon whiskey doesn’t go through the Lincoln County Process (a mellowing, pre-aging filtration through sugar maple charcoal), which, to certain bourbon believers, would qualify Belle Meade as a more authentic bourbon than its divergent Tennessee brethren. Whatever you call it, it’s particular stuff. The three distinct recipes that when blended become Belle Meade, are aged for six years in 53 charred American white oak barrels, some of which are more than 8 years old. A fairly hefty proportion of rye adds extra flavor. “We know the original Belle Meade bourbon was a high-rye content bourbon,” says Andy. “With 30 percent rye, it has a bit more spice than most bourbon. A more average mash bill is somewhere between 7 to 15 percent rye, if it has rye at all.”
For a bartender, that additional spice means a bit more room to play. “Bourbon has a great depth of flavor that mixes excellently,” says Monroe. “It stands up to other big flavors without overpowering them. It’s versatile.” The Belle Meade rye content allows Monroe to mix a bit more liberally than he might with a softer, sweeter bourbon. “The rye tends to dry [the bourbon] out and adds that classic nutty note that rye is known for,” he says. “For mixing, it’s wonderful. It stands up against some of the bigger flavors and the rye notes really come through.” Those notes, says Monroe, come alongside vanilla, butterscotch, cigar box, dried fruit flavors, “and on and on.”
While indulging in the freedom of that rye-spiked balance, Monroe came to The Golden Suit, a legacy cocktail named for John Philip Nelson’s fortune-laden but ultimately ill-fated, (sunken) garment. “When naming a drink, I often like to look at the history of the spirit or the history of the region,” says Monroe, who came to the South as a kid and calls it home. “In this case, the Belle Meade Bourbon has its own great family story that’s dramatic and interesting. Add to that, I know the Nelson brothers, and I’m a fan of what they’re doing.”
Served by Monroe in the speakeasy-demure of The Patterson House, the Golden Suit pays homage to the Nelson family heritage, highlighting all the distinctive qualities of the Belle Meade. “The idea was to make a drink that let the [bourbon] shine while accenting the beautiful fall-winter spice notes,” he says. “Since Belle Meade is a drier [bourbon], it allows me to sweeten it a little with the [Marie Brizard] apricot and the falernum, while coaxing out the beautiful flavor that the bourbon itself has.” Nine dashes of Fee Brother’s Old Fashioned bitters play up the savory spice, with lemon juice providing acidity to balance out the bourbon’s lingering curvaceousness.
Though Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery has not officially opened, the brand already has distribution across the United States. When they kick off the distilling of the original recipe of Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey,their planned flagship, John Philip Nelson’s American dream will enjoy a second incarnation. Meanwhile, bartenders like Monroe are happy to see an increase in smaller operations. “You can already see more focus and attention on smaller batch American whiskeys,” he says, well aware of his own role as teacher-by-tipple. “As long as there’s a demand and interest in new and interesting whiskeys, they’ll continue to get better.”