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.
From then on, they were obsessed.
Charlie and Andy developed a plan: Raise money, build their new distillery, start putting up bottles of Tennessee whiskey. Sell nothing until it was aged and ready. Their recipe was based on an estimation of their ancestor’s, cobbled from old newspapers, sales records for the various grains Charles Nelson bought, and “an old leather-bound ledger” that their parents had tucked away. (Old leather-bound ledgers probably turn up a lot in whiskey origin stories.)
A humanities major with an emphasis in philosophy, Charlie talks passionately about rebuilding his ancestor’s business. “Stories are what propagate cultures, and this is in my mind the American story,” he says. “I just love so many aspects of it. The things that he was involved with were at the core of human culture” — soap, candles, meat, coffee, whiskey — “the basic things that are also the great things.”
But potential investors weren’t sold. They would ask the brothers whether they’d ever built a distillery before. No. Had they ever run one? No. When would they start bringing in revenue? Well, the whiskey would have to age, so it would be several years. Did they have an exit strategy to sell to a bigger company once they were established? Definitely not: They want to see their grandkids running the company.
In the end, they had to go a different route. Putting their Tennessee whiskey recipe on hold, Charlie says, the family put up everything they owned to guarantee a loan. They contracted with MGP Ingredients in Lawrenceburg, Ind., to buy a bulk high-rye-content bourbon they believe is similar to one Charles Nelson once sold.
Contract distilling is a common practice, though not much publicized. Although a trip to the local liquor store would seem to reveal a huge diversity of whiskey brands, much of that variety is illusory. If you leave out the microdistilleries, Cowdery says, “all the American whiskey in the world is made by eight companies at 13 distilleries.”
If, for example, Jim Beam estimates it has more five-year-old bourbon than it needs, it’ll sell the excess to another producer. “They won’t allow that producer to say it’s Jim Beam,” Cowdery says, “and the producer probably doesn’t want to say that anyway, because they’re trying to create the illusion that they made it.” MGP, Cowdery says, is the only distillery that has no brands of its own and sells only to non-distiller producers. (Bulleit Rye, Templeton Rye and other well-known whiskeys are reportedly among its products.)
In going that route, says brother Andy, 30, they had to swallow their pride. Although Belle Meade bourbon is part of their brand, “it’s in some ways a means to an end,” a product designed to raise capital and prove their mettle to investors. Andy, the acknowledged “details guy,” has been training with Dave Pickerell, former master distiller at Maker’s Mark, and will be the head distiller when Nelson’s begins distilling its own product.
While he acknowledges that the Indiana connection “isn’t the first thing” he mentions in sales pitches, Charlie says they don’t deceive anyone about the bourbon’s source. And the marketing-savvy — who accept that Dos Equis’s Most Interesting Man in the World is an actor — may find Belle Meade nothing to fret over.
But in the heritage-obsessed world of whiskey, it has drawn criticism from those who say the name of the spirit and the replica label showing Tennessee’s historic Belle Meade Plantation and referring to a “unique family recipe” mislead consumers. (The nonprofit plantation, once a famed thoroughbred stud farm, has a “marketing relationship” with Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery and gets a small fee for each case of Belle Meade sold, according to executive director Alton Kelley.) Charlie says that being upfront about the source of Belle Meade does cost him sales.
For a fledgling distiller, getting a foothold in an industry dominated by consolidated multinationals and spirits with decades of built-up brand identity is tough. I wondered aloud to Cowdery whether whiskey companies, with fans policing their brands and invested in their heritage, operate under “gentlemen’s agreements” about how much they’ll fudge in their marketing.
Cowdery laughed. “There are no gentlemen’s agreements. In fact, you could say there are no gentlemen. But there is the law.”
It was the law that forced the Nelsons and a group of friends and relatives to spend long hours in their chilly Nashville warehouse last winter, relabeling thousands of bottles of bourbon. Most spirits can get away with listing only the location of their bottler, and Andy says that until their bottler raised a red flag, they hadn’t realized that the requirements for some American whiskeys — straight bourbon among them — are more stringent.
Tom Hogue of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau referred me to the Federal Register: Title 27, Part 5, Subpart D, Section 36, Paragraph D. That was the section the Nelsons’ bottler had called to their attention, one stipulating that in cases where the bottler and the distiller are in different states, both must be listed on the label. The Nelsons and their supporters had marathon relabeling sessions to get into compliance.
Cowdery worries that their business plan is unrealistic. You might pull it off in 20 years, he says, but you’re not going to come in, sell some bulk whiskey and make a quick fortune that enables you to start up your real distillery.
“This business is not that easy,” he warns.
The Nelsons, though, say that they’re in for the long haul and that their plan to get into actual distillation is moving along. Hard work and networking have gotten their product into stores and bars; locally, acclaimed bartender and cocktail history buff Derek Brown is a fan. The brothers hope to start distilling at their Nashville facility by year’s end. They hem and haw when pressed for an exact date, though, mentioning that there are “variables.”
For whiskey drinkers who love the spirit’s heritage and history, the company as it stands presents a question. What will define the Nelson’s Green Brier brand: the true history that’s inspiring the men to risk everything on the venture, or their off-site, out-of-state booze? Can the company evolve, building a legacy on the foundation of a contract product?
If you want a good mid-price bourbon with a nice rye spice and a good caramel nose, and if you aren’t picky about its source, you can buy Belle Meade Bourbon right now. If you want Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey, you’ll have to wait and see whether the Nelsons can pull it off.
Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears monthly. On Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.