Whiskey is tethered to Tennessee like champagne to northeast France, or tobacco to North Carolina. The spirit symbolizes the south, an elixir imbued with a triple-distilled Americana — part mythology, part savvy marketing. For the Nelson brothers, it goes even deeper than that. Tennessee whiskey, after all, is in their blood.
Andy ’05 and Charlie Nelson ’06, both natives of Los Angeles and LMU graduates, stumbled upon their family’s legacy in 2006, during a trip to Greenbrier, a small town about 25 miles north of Nashville. After years of hearing rumors about a bourbon baron in their lineage, they finally confronted concrete evidence. It started with a historical marker at a gas station, a sign bearing their name that directed them into town. The local butcher pointed out an old spring house and barrel warehouse, dilapidated relics from the original whiskey distillery. A visit to the town’s historical society confirmed their findings.
The converted Victorian housed centuries-old artifacts, including newspaper clippings from the 1800s proclaiming the impact of Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery on the local community. Among them were two original bottles of Belle Meade Bourbon, one of more than 30 labels that the brothers’ great-great-great grandfather Charles Nelson produced in the pre-Prohibition era.
“That was it. It was real at that point. It wasn’t just a spring, or an old building. That was our name on a bottle of whiskey. That’s when we decided — this is what we should be doing,” says Andy.
While serendipity makes for a compelling origin story, it’s less persuasive as a sales pitch to potential investors. The brothers’ decision to resurrect the family business felt like a lightning strike, but the next three years were a plodding yet precarious balancing act between retaining control of the infant company and raising much-needed capital, all while learning as much as possible about the production of whiskey.
“Everybody with money that we talked to had the same questions for us. ‘Do you have experience running a business?’ No. ‘Do you have experience running a distillery?’ No. ‘Can you prove to me that the product is good, do you know that it’s going to sell?’ Well we don’t, but trust us,” remembers Andy. “It was the ultimate nightmare in trying to raise money. We had this passion, and of course we were the only ones who believed in it.”
When external fundraising failed, the brothers turned inward.
“My family and I put up everything that we owned to guarantee a loan to get started with a contract distillery, sourcing barrels to create our own unique brand, start building a brand, and attract investors,” says Charlie. “We sold our first bottles in 2012, and we were able to build out our distillery, which opened to the public in 2014.”
The brand launched with Belle Meade Bourbon, in a bottle bearing a version of the original label. The brothers have since added four other products to their portfolio. Constellation Brands, a beverage conglomerate and the largest wine producer in the world, came on in a minority position earlier this year, providing additional resources. Their namesake Tennessee whiskey is currently barrel aging and is expected to hit the market in 2018.
While the Nelsons share educational background (both studied philosophy) and ownership in the brand, they have taken on very different roles within the company. Andy leads production and operations as COO, while Charlie — who wrote the original business plan as part of a course in his final semester at LMU — heads up sales and marketing as CEO.
“We both trust that each other has the best intentions at heart, but we also have different ideas of how to get there,” says Charlie.
They agree that key additions to the distillery’s lineup have been pivotal for the success of the brand thus far: Dave Pickerell, the master distiller for 14 years at Maker’s Mark, and Mike Cheek, former president of Brown-Forman, which owns Jack Daniels. Now with 25 employees, a tasting room near downtown Nashville and distribution in 14 states and the District of Columbia, the brand is poised for growth. And they have no intention to stay small.
In 1885, Charles Nelson was selling two million units worldwide, outpacing competitors Jack Daniels and George Dickel by a wide margin. A similar ambition is brewing.
“Our plan is to grow deep roots where we are before we grow outward,” explains Andy. “Grow slowly and the right way.”
Charlie is more direct. “Back in the day, this was one of the largest distilleries in the country. Now, I want to take over the world.”