This summer I stumbled upon a story that was almost to epic to be true. Two millennial males, adventurers, explorers, historians, philosophers, brothers, stumbled upon a family history that had been buried in lore.
The tale goes as follows:
A long lost descendant with a golden suit that sent him to the bottom of the Ocean on their journey from Germany to the land of opportunity in America.
A young boy who found himself leading a family at age 15 only to find one of the largest distilleries of his time.
Prohibition and a strong woman who decide when she would close her doors.
Time lending to history being forgotten…
Until one day Andy and Charlie Nelson rediscovered their past and started the biggest adventure of their lives.
Read more about the family history at the Nelson’s GreenBrier Distillery Website then read how the guys balance their new found responsibility as businessmen with their adventurous, active lifestyles in our exclusive interview below.
Schwinn: Both of you have a passion for the outdoors and being active. Can you tell us what sort of adventures you went on before you founded the distillery?
Andy: My biggest adventure before the distillery was a hike on the Appalachian Trail. In 2009 I decided to try to hike the southern half of the trail, from Springer Mountain in Georgia up to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. I went by myself and it was an amazing trip, something I think about every day. I also learned a lot of valuable lessons and from doing the hike even though I didn’t end up making it all the way to Harper’s Ferry.
When you go long distance hiking, you are forced to learn a lot of patience and that has been invaluable to me as it applies to the whiskey industry. There is nothing that moves quickly in this business and it took a whole different adventure for me to learn that.
Charlie: I backpacked around Thailand, Laos and Vietnam for around 3 months. While I was in a village near Nong Kiau, Laos, I went on a solo journey to find a waterfall, but ended up getting lost. Long story short, the path I was on got cut off by a forest fire, I got stuck in a puddle of buffalo dung, happened upon a village that had never seen an American before, almost got stampeded by water buffalo, fell into the river, then was rescued by two guys who were floating by on a metal canoe that was made from USA bombshells.
Schwinn: How was biking a part of your lives before you opened the distillery?
Charlie: I have always loved riding bikes. It gives me a feeling of freedom. Zooming down a monster hill near my parents’ house was a huge joy I remember as a kid. And riding my bike to the pool every day of summer was a key part of growing up for me. Since I have gotten older, riding a bike is one of the best ways to clear my head, whether it is taking a joyride or biking purely to get from point A to point B.
Andy: When I was younger, middle school age, I got into this huge mountain bike phase, and of course as a kid. I wanted all the gear and everything that came along with it. I obviously didn’t end up being a professional mountain biker, but I gradually found that if I was going to be in the woods and mountains, I preferred to walk and take my time seeing everything around me rather than trying to go fast.
“After a while of taking my time, I learned to appreciate the speed of things and just the freedom that a bicycle can give you.”
Schwinn: Both of you followed similar roots with degrees in Philosophy at Loyola; as Philosophy majors do you believe in fate? Do you think that you were destined to find your grandfather’s warehouse?
Charlie: The way events have unfolded in my life, it is hard not to believe that everything happens for a reason. I tend to believe that we were destined to find our family’s distillery and resurrect the family business. This business seems to be the perfect fit for us and I don’t know what else in the world we would be doing had we never discovered our heritage.
Andy: I’m not sure I believe in fate exactly, but at the same time, there are things I just can’t ignore. The fact that we came across this history without even knowing much about it was one of the craziest things I’ve ever experienced. Sometimes I just have to sit back and remove myself from the situation to kind of soak it all in.
Schwinn: Can you describe that moment and how you felt when you realized the enormity of the operation your grandparents had ran?
Andy: It’s very hard to describe that moment when we realized the scope of what we had discovered, but I will say for me it took a while to really sink in. Of course there was that one initial blast of excitement and almost a surreal feeling, but since then it’s been work work work to get it done and make it happen again.
Charlie: When we stumbled across the old barrel warehouse then saw a couple of original bottles, it was like being struck by lightning. It was a moment of clarity. All of a sudden, everything seemed to make sense. It was as though my entire life had been leading up to this moment, and that is when I realized my purpose in life.
Schwinn: As history lovers, there had to be a moment where you thought, this is just too epic to be true. What part of your history surprised you the most?
Charlie: The part of the history that surprised me the most is that it wasn’t passed down. It now makes sense to me that the family didn’t talk a whole lot about the business because it was generally looked at as an immoral and illegal business, which is why it shut down when Prohibition was enacted.
Also, I had always heard the story of my family coming over from Germany on a boat, and Charles Nelson’s (the founder of the distillery) father John-Philip Nelson being knocked overboard and drowning because he had the family fortune in gold sewn into his clothing. After doing research, I found that was true, which was a surprise to me.
Andy: I think the thing that surprised me the most is just how many little details have surfaced that we didn’t immediately find. There are little connections here and there that by themselves don’t amount to much necessarily, but then you put them all together and it’s almost overwhelming. There’s such deep history and we’re always uncovering something new, and it’s all so profoundly gratifying. There are also so many people who have reached out to tell us how happy they are that we have done this and how important it is that this family history stays alive. There are just no words to describe how good that feels.
Schwinn: When you realized that reopening the distillery was something you both wanted to do together; what was the biggest hurdle you had to tackle to get the distillery running again?
Andy: No question, the biggest hurdle in getting the distillery running again was raising capital. There is no easy way to ask someone for their hard-earned money, and it makes it especially tough when you are 22-23 years old and have no experience or real formal education on running a business (not to mention the specialized trade of making whiskey).
“Getting told “no” on a regular basis can really bruise your ego. But when we finally succeeded in getting our brand out to market and then built the whole distillery, nothing has ever been so worth the effort.”
Schwinn: What is it like working with your brother every day?
Andy: The worst. Kidding. It’s great because not only do we know each other better than we know anyone else, but we know that the other has the absolute best intentions at heart. We definitely have different strengths and weaknesses, and different points of view, but that really works to our advantage in a major way.
Schwinn: Now that your lives are so involved in the distillery, do you find that you have less time to be active like you once were? How do you make time to stay active and continue on your adventures?
Andy: It totally depends on the day or the week, but I think in general I might be even more active than I was before. My job is in production and operations, so I’m more often out on the production floor and moving around. I definitely find that the more active you are, the more active you want to be. The same goes for being sedentary, it’s all a cycle.
Charlie: Now that I am so involved with the distillery, it is difficult to find time to do things for myself. I think that I am still fairly active, just in a different way than before. Every day seems like a new adventure to me. I am learning something new all the time, but I am not spending as much time traveling just for leisure, that’s for sure. Travel is a big part of what I do and I get to go to some really cool places, eat and drink at some of the best bars and restaurants in different cities, and meet amazing people.
Charlie: I just got back from New York this evening, leave for Florida tomorrow morning, go to Bonnaroo in Manchester, TN this weekend, head to Los Angeles and San Francisco for a few days next week, then I get a few days home in Nashville before I am back traveling. These are all pretty short trips for selling whiskey, but I am really looking forward to going to Colorado for a wedding in a couple of months and do some hiking, biking and rafting!
Andy: I’m trying to get Charlie to start planning my bachelor party for sometime this summer, but who knows when that will be. I just want to go somewhere while it’s still warm out!
Schwinn: Biking and the craft brewery cultures are tied together quite strongly in the Midwest, what has your experience been with biking and the spirit culture? Do you see that same sort of kinship?
Charlie: I haven’t seen as much of the kinship between spirits and biking as there is between brewing and biking, but that is something we would like to be a part of changing! My friend JP Fetherston in DC biked all over Scotland, visiting distilleries, which I think is totally awesome.
Schwinn: How have bicycles been involved in your lives today? Have the Brighton’s found a role in the daily work of distillery life now?
Charlie: I have started riding a bike again! I have been riding it around the distillery and the neighborhood and cruising around East Nashville and it has made me be more active in general.
Andy: I will say that since I just moved to a new part of town, I’m hoping to be able to ride my bike to work now. I LOVE riding my bike around the distillery! We have a decent amount of open space on our production floor and sometimes it’s just fun to do a few laps. Nothing crazy, I don’t want it to get dangerous, but it’s just fun.
Schwinn: What would you tell those young people who want to start a business venture, but are fearful of the risks?
Charlie: You should follow your heart. Do what you really love and don’t settle for something just because it is good enough. We risked quite literally everything that we owned in order to start this business, and I think that it shows in how we operate. If you are willing to risk absolutely everything, then you are bound to succeed. If things don’t turn out as you imagined they would, then you are certainly going to learn a valuable lesson. The best lessons are learned from your failures, not your successes. You need to keep pushing forward at all times.
Andy: DO IT!!!! The risks might be high, but the rewards are so worth it if you truly believe in what you’re doing and you love it. Think of it this way: when you’re on your death bed, would you rather regret trying something and not succeeding or knowing that you could have tried and just didn’t? To me, there is no contest on which is the right answer.
Schwinn: What would you tell those who feel like they are too busy to get on a bike or lack the resources to travel?
Charlie: If you feel like you are too busy to get on a bike or lack the resources to travel, then start small. Go to a nearby park, bike around the block, meet some friends and take a short road trip, do something, just go! Get out in the world and breathe in the fresh air. There are so many beautiful things all around you, in every city, you just need to look. Do a little research and you will find something. You don’t need much to travel. Keep an open mind and be flexible.
Andy: I once felt like I was too busy to get on a bike, or exercise at all for that matter, but you just have to make time. It’s tough for a little while but you’ve got to love the soreness from your first few days. To me, that’s how I know I’m getting better. In a nutshell, NO EXCUSES!!
Schwinn: Green Brier has been open for about two years now, but your reach is already expanding across the states. What are your next big plans for the distillery?
Charlie: Back in the day, Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery was one of the largest distilleries in the country, and we definitely have plans to grow. While we are expanding, the whiskey business is a long slow process. Currently we are selling a few varieties of Belle Meade Bourbon, but we are incredibly excited about our Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey, which is still a couple years away. Eventually, we have plans to build another much bigger facility and resurrect more original labels that were once produced by Charles Nelson, our triple-great grandfather!
Andy: The whiskey world is booming and we plan on taking full advantage!
Read more about the family history at the Nelson’s GreenBrier Distillery Website here and the next time you are in Nashville remember to stop by the GreenBrier for a bit of inspiration!