Go on. But we won’t pay your medical bills.
In an industry cloaked in myths, misconceptions and plain old bull-hucksterism, it’s hard to tell how much of a spirit’s heritage is real. The realm of American whiskeys is soaked in history, salesmanship and the history of salesmanship.
“A lot of people will tell you that for a whiskey to be successful, it needs a good flavor profile and a good story,” says Charles K. Cowdery, author of “Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey” (Made and Bottled in Kentucky, 2004). Cowdery, a whiskey expert once employed by spirits company Brown-Forman, has come to specialize in researching the history (and debunking the tall tales) around American whiskeys. “If you’ve got a story,” he says, “then great. If you don’t, then you make one up.”
He notes Beam family members who were involved in the bourbon’s creation but left out of the company’s mythology, and he talks good-humoredly about how Maker’s Mark founder Bill Samuels Sr. purportedly invented wheated bourbon while baking bread, “when in fact Stitzel-Weller had been making wheated bourbon since the ’30s, and the owner of Stitzel-Weller was Pappy Van Winkle, and Pappy Van Winkle was his best friend and next-door neighbor.”
In launching their spirits brand, brothers Andy and Charlie Nelson of Nashville haven’t had to cook up a myth. They have a true story. Their great-great-great grandfather Charles Nelson, the German immigrant grocer son of a soap- and candlemaker, owned a distillery in Robertson County, Tenn. At its pre-Prohibition height, it was producing nearly 380,000 gallons of whiskey a year.
The awareness of his forebear’s booze business hit home for Charlie in 2006, while he was finishing college and drove with his father and brother to pick up meat from a butcher in Greenbrier, Tenn. Stopping for gas, they encountered a historical marker: “One mile east on Long Branch Charles Nelson opened Greenbrier Distillery in 1870. The largest producer in Robertson County of sour mash whiskey and fruit brandy until 1909, Nelson’s helped provide economic prosperity to this area.”
“I was like, ‘Is that my name?!’ ” recalls Charlie, 29.
Further investigation took them to still-standing buildings that were part of their ancestor’s operations. The Greenbrier Historical Society showed them the grail: two intact bottles of Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey.