Touring Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Nashville

CocktailWonk Rating: 6.5/10 ($10 tour)

Following an epic expedition through eight Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey distilleries in October 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned a year later, visiting six more major players and completing our regional Tour de Bourbon. While every distillery is unique and interesting in its own way, there are certain common elements such as fermentation tanks and rick houses that you’ll see on just about any tour. In a prior post, I described these common elements of these tours in detail, allowing me to focus this post on my observations about the Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, I’d suggest starting with that post.

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Situated in a renovated warehouse building in west Nashville, Nelson’s Greenbrier is just a few blocks down the street from Corsair Artisan Distillery, forming the beginnings of a distillery row. Nelson’s is quite new, only open for a year at the time of this writing. Despite that, their distillery DSP code is DSP-TN-5, indicating it’s one of Tennessee’s first registered distilleries. What gives? A pretty great family story, actually. Back in the late 1800s, a gentleman named Charles Nelson founded the original Green Brier distillery, which soon became the state’s largest distiller, handily out-producing those little guys, Jack Daniels.

Bottle from original Nelson's Green Brier Distillery
Bottle from original Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery

The subsequent Prohibition disaster resulted in the shuttering of the distillery, leaving it to be forgotten as an artifact of a different era and even lost to their own family’s history. Fast forward to 2006, two brothers, Andy and Charlie Nelson learned from a chance conversation that their great-great-great grandfather had been a distiller. Inspired by the story, they went looking for their connection to a deep family history—and committed to reviving the distillery in a new location.  Because of the family connection, they were allowed to use the original DSP-TN-5 designation.

DSP-TN-5

The subsequent Prohibition disaster resulted in the shuttering of the distillery, leaving it to be forgotten as an artifact of a different era and even lost to their own family’s history. Fast forward to 2006, two brothers, Andy and Charlie Nelson learned from a chance conversation that their great-great-great grandfather had been a distiller. Inspired by the story, they went looking for their connection to a deep family history—and committed to reviving the distillery in a new location.  Because of the family connection, they were allowed to use the original DSP-TN-5 designation.

Like many freshly minted distilleries, Nelson’s is housed entirely within an old converted warehouse building. The front of the building houses a visitor’s center, gift shop, historical displays, distillery offices, and a tasting bar. More on these later.

The rear of the building is the core of the distillery, divided into two large spaces. The first room is where all the distillation happens, from grain to white dog whiskey. The other room functions as a rickhouse of sorts, holding barrels undergoing aging, and with tons more space for future barrels. You definitely sense that it’s filling up over time.

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Upon entering the distillery core, your eyes immediately go toward the gorgeous Vendome-made hybrid pot/column still. Its shape is reminiscent of a Benedictine bottle, and it’s elevated a few feet off the store with stubby legs. It’s difficult to not just stand there and gawk at it. At 750 gallons, it’s larger than you might find in a typical small distillery, but substantially smaller than the giant stills run by the big players.

Grain mill
Grain mill
Charcoal filtration demonstration
Charcoal filtration demonstration

All the expected distillery equipment (grain mill, cooker, fermentation tanks, etc.) reside near the still in neatly organized rows, giving the distinct feeling of a very efficient pipeline that segues from grain milling to cooking to fermentation to distillation. However, unlike with other whiskey tours, we didn’t see mash cooking or fermenting up close. The setup of the equipment isn’t particularly conducive to that, and a dotted line painted on the floor indicates you, the non-distillery employee, should keep a safe distance.

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Around the rim of the building are containers of bottles, barrels, grain bins, and so on. In one corner is a small bottling line. This also appears to be where the barrels are filled.

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In the barrel aging room, you’ll find a numerous rows of newly built wooden racks holding filled barrels, similar to what you’d find in a rickhouse. However, these racks only go three barrels high, rather than six or more stories like the typical rickhouses at big distilleries. Nelson’s racks are currently about a third filled with barrels. While most are newly made white oak, a smaller set are larger, darker barrels looking like they’ve spent many years in a musty warehouse. These are sherry butts, imported from Spain and used to finish the Belle Meade Sherry Cask bourbon. During our visit we witnessed a tank of distillate, raised on a forklift, draining into a sherry butt via a hose.

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After checking out the distillation and aging setup, the tour concludes with the tasting. Being a very new distillery, Nelson’s Green Brier has only four bottlings currently for sale:

  • Belle Meade Bourbon
  • Belle Meade Bourbon Sherry Cask
  • Belle Meade Bourbon Single Barrel (distillery only)
  • Tennessee White Whiskey

The Belle Meade bourbons currently available are aged for at least six years, so must have been distilled somewhere else. The tour guide readily disclosed that they contracted out distillation to get an initial supply of bourbon aging for sale as soon as possible. It’s very common for startup distilleries to bootstrap themselves like this. Per the TTB label approval, this initial bourbon was likely distilled by Strong Spirits of Bardstown, KY (DSP-KY-15007).

The Tennessee White Whiskey is a “white dog” (unaged) whiskey, made on site at Nelson’s, and is filtered through charcoal similar to other Tennessee whiskies like Jack Daniels.

We received generous pours of all four products for sale in the gift shop. Bottle prices at the shop are slightly higher than you’d pay to purchase a bottle at a liquor store or online. (This is fairly typical at distillery gift shops in my experience.) I selected a bottle of the Single Cask—not readily available outside the gift shop.

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Overall, the Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery tour is a good, low commitment tour – fun for someone who finds themselves in Nashville and seeking a gentle introduction to how bourbon is made. You won’t see the awe-inspiring, giant fermentation tanks, towering column stills, and huge rickhouses like you will at, say, the Jack Daniels and George Dickel distilleries an hour’s drive south, but if you want to see what a well-organized craft distillery looks like, it’s a solid choice.

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