Lets Talk Craft Distilleries: The Nelson's Greenbrier Distillery
Written By: Luke Grabowski
1414 Clinton St,
Nashville, TN, 37203
Owners: Charlie & Andy Nelson
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Last week I had the opportunity to travel up to one of my favorite cities, Nashville, Tennessee, for a long weekend of honky-tonk-hopping and overindulging in whiskey and fine southern cuisine. Suffice to say I could spend weeks in Music City without running out of things to do. However, for this visit I had to make a trip off Broadway to visit the site of a renovated warehouse just outside of downtown that is home to the newly-revived Nelson’s Greenbrier Distillery.
The 45-minute distillery tour begins with a history of its founder, Charles Nelson, beginning with his family’s fateful trip from Germany to the United States in the early 1800s, wherein Charles’ father, along with their entire family fortune (and numerous other passengers) were lost during intense storms. At the age of 15 Charles began working as a soap and candle maker, and then ended up as a grocer in Nashville, where he would ultimately learn about producing and selling whiskey. Charles eventually acquired the distillery that was providing whiskey to his grocery store, along with a patent for an improved distillation process, and formed the Nelson’s Greenbrier Distillery just north of Nashville. Unfortunately, Charles passed away shortly thereafter and his wife, Louisa, took control of the operation. The distillery continued its growth and success, which included a portfolio of nearly 30 spirits, until 1909 when Tennessee passed a statewide prohibition, forcing the distillery to shut down. Unfortunately, nationwide prohibition also came along 11 years later, which eliminated any chances of the distillery resuming its operations. The distillery ultimately fell into a state of disrepair and all of its brands were lost for nearly 100 years, until the remnants of the distillery were discovered by Charles Nelson’s great great great grandchildren, Charlie and Andy Nelson. In 2011, after a long and painstaking process, the brothers revived the brand and in 2014 reopened the distillery in Nashville, the city where Charles Nelson first entered the world of whiskey. The company now produces a variety of spirits from its headquarters in Music City.
After a very brief history lesson and a view of the some of the company’s original labels and advertisements, the tour then moves to the distillery floor where you get an up close view of their hybrid copper still.
After touring the distillery floor, which also showcases the company’s grains, mills, and other distilling equipment, guests then have the opportunity to take a glance at the aging process in action.
The tour culminates in a tasting right outside the distillery floor, where guests are given the opportunity to sample a lineup of NGB’s current products. Among these products is Belle Meade bourbon, one of nearly 30 brands Charles Nelson originally produced out of his Greenbrier Distillery in the late 1800s.
During my visit, we were given the opportunity to taste their “First 108” Tennessee whiskey, Belle Meade bourbon, Belle Meade Sherry Cask Finish bourbon, and the company’s new coffee liqueur. Personally, I thought the sherry cask finish bourbon was the clear winner from this tasting. Belle Meade is a high quality bourbon and the sherry cask finishing process adds additional layers of complexity to this bourbon, with obvious notes of red wine and fruit on the nose, more sweetness up front on the palate which creates a very smooth, velvety mouthfeel, and extra notes of dried fruit on the finish.
After the tour I made my way into the distillery gift shop with hopes of getting my hands on a bottle (or two) of NGB’s more difficult to find products. The variety pack of the company’s current cask finish bourbons initially caught my eye, but I ultimately decided to take home a bottle of the Belle Meade 12-Year Single Barrel bourbon. This is by far the oldest expression of Belle Meade bourbon available, and according to many sources, was supposed to be a bold and flavorful bourbon. And while the $110 price tag was a little higher than expected for a sourced bourbon, I was willing to take the risk based on my prior experiences with Belle Meade and the fact that I appreciate NGB’s efforts to rebuild the distillery and revive this storied brand.
This single barrel bourbon is selected by the team at NGB from barrels that are aged for at least 12 years. This bourbon is sourced from an unknown distiller, and is then aged and bottled at the NGB Distillery in Nashville. This is cask strength bourbon so there is no water added and the bourbon is not chill-filtered. The mashbill is not disclosed but it is clear that this is a high-rye bourbon. Some sources have speculated that the juice came from MGP in Indiana, and if so this product is likely made from their high-rye mashbill (60% corn, 36% rye, and 4% malted barley). This bourbon was put into barrel #5164 on October 24, 2006, and comes in at 99.4 proof (49.7% abv).
Belle Meade 12-Year Single Barrel Bourbon
Appearance – orange amber.
Nose – there is medium alcohol on the nose, with baking spices, mainly cinnamon and allspice, along with oak, spice, and rich, toasted caramel. A little water brought out more cinnamon along with the sweetness of fresh vanilla bean.
Palate – there is no doubt that this is high-rye bourbon. There is significant heat and spice up front, along with some oak, vanilla, and caramel corn. Water brings out more of the caramel corn (i.e. more nuttiness and sweetness) but the spice continues to dominate.
Finish – the finish is medium-long and this bourbon leaves a relatively dry mouthfeel. The rye spice lingers along with light oak, lots of leather, and a mild citrus profile, reminiscent of bitter summer fruit.
Overall –this is a quality cask-strength bourbon, but I am not sure I agree with the hefty price tag. This bourbon is very easy drinking and generally provides a pleasant flavor profile, but it is not terribly complex and I felt a little underwhelmed with the finished product. The signature Belle Meade bourbon provides a similar flavor profile for less than half the price, so I would recommend starting at that price point if this is your first experience with Belle Meade bourbon. Nonetheless, this is quality bourbon from a quality distillery and I look forward to what the future holds for Nelson’s Greenbrier Distillery.