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Whiskey in the Family Tree

Family road trips are usually the stuff of diversion, not destiny. But in 2006, when brothers Andy and Charlie Nelson decided to ride along with their parents on an errand to Greenbrier, Tennessee, about 45 minutes north of Nashville, a trip to pick up beef from a butcher turned into a lesson in family history, and a new life in the whiskey business.

Both in their twenties at the time, the Nelson brothers knew a few stories about their great-great-great grandfather, Charles Nelson—how he’d been born in Germany on the 4th of July in 1835 and emigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1850; how his father drowned during the crossing, dragged down into the Atlantic by the weight of the family’s entire fortune in gold, which was sewn into his clothing; and how the penniless Charles settled first in New York, then moved to Cincinnati and, in 1858, to Tennessee. What they didn’t know much about, though, was the magnitude of Charles Nelson’s involvement in the whiskey industry. “We stopped to get gas along the way, and right at the corner there was a big historical marker about Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery and how big it was and the economic prosperity it brought to the county,” says Andy Nelson. “That was a ‘holy cow’ kind of moment—we had no idea that it had been that big and important.”

After stopping at the former distillery location (as luck would have it, across the road from the butcher’s place that prompted the initial errand)—a barrel warehouse and spring house still stood—they headed for the local historical society and saw two bottles of Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey with the family’s name on the label. “Once we saw that, we knew,” he says. “It was almost like we didn’t have a choice, we knew it was something we had to do.”

Family Affair

The history of American whiskey is filled with family names familiar to any bourbon drinker—Beam, Samuels, Brown, Van Winkle. But as whiskey’s fortunes soar, and as hundreds of new distilleries and brands enter the picture, some families like the Nelsons are digging into their whiskey-laced heritage and getting back into the business. In 2008, Dixon Dedman, the fifth generation of his family to run the Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg, Kentucky (first opened in 1919, the inn was declared an American Classic by the James Beard Foundation in 2015), began the six-year process of reviving his family’s whiskey label, Kentucky Owl, which had originally been in production from 1879 until 1916. And in downtown Louisville, in a 120-year-old former warehouse near the city’s historic Whiskey Row, Corky Taylor and his son, Carson, began construction on Kentucky Peerless Distilling in 2014, adopting the name that was utilized by Corky’s great-grandfather, Henry Kraver, who entered the business with his purchase of E.W. Worsham Distilling in 1889 (Kraver incorporated as Kentucky Peerless Distilling Company in 1907). The Taylors barreled their first batches of whiskey the following year.

For families such as these, diving back into whiskey is a way of picking up a family history that had long been interrupted by Prohibition and its state-level preludes.

“There’s a lot more to our story than just, ‘Oh, let’s start up a family brand,’ ” says Dixon Dedman. Along with his business partners, Mark and Sherri Carter, Dedman reintroduced Kentucky Owl bourbon in 2014, after a lifetime of hearing about the business from his family. “I’ve spent my life—just as my father and grandfather and great- and great-great grandparents spent theirs—with this sense of history, and a family legacy,” he says. “Carrying on tradition is a big part of what we do in the hotel business, and this brand and this distillery were taken away from us. My great-great-grandfather was forced to cease production and his inventory was confiscated during the first part of Prohibition. My grandfather used to say that when he won the lottery (and it was always ‘when,’ not ‘if’), the first thing he’d do is buy a limousine, and the second thing would be to get back into the bourbon business. For me to get back into it was kind of harkening back to previous generations, and trying to make another connection with our past and our history here.”

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Peerless Distilling was one of five distilleries to have a medicinal license during Prohibition.

And while countless small distilleries opened and closed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, some families are finding that their distilling legacy is quite substantial. “When Peerless closed in 1917, it was the second-largest distillery in Kentucky,” says Carson Taylor. Around the turn of the 20th century, Kentucky Peerless was producing close to 200 barrels of whiskey per day; by 1913, production had risen to 10,000 barrels per year, and the distillery had nearly 50 employees. After stopping production for Prohibition, Peerless retained some lasting influence even through the dry years. “We were one of five distilleries to have a medicinal license during Prohibition,” he says.

Nelson’s Green Brier was similarly strong during the 19th century. “In 1885, there were around 1,000 registered distilleries in the state of Tennessee, and the annual production in the state was around 1.2 million gallons,” says Charlie Nelson. “Charles Nelson was selling about 380,000 gallons a year—the next biggest was maybe around 30,000 gallons a year. So about one-third of all the whiskey being made in the state was made by Charles Nelson.” His brother agrees. “It was selling in markets all across the U.S. and overseas, as far as Russia and the Philippines,” Andy says. “It was by far the largest Tennessee whiskey back then, and it was the largest distillery in Tennessee, and one of the largest in the country.”

History by the Bottle

Family heritage is one thing—changing tastes and the whiskey business, however, can pose challenges that care little for the past. Recognizing not only a boom in craft distilling but also the rise of connoisseurship among whiskey drinkers, these distillers are finding that their approach to whiskey must borrow from their ancestors, while also gearing for the demands of a 21st-century audience. “I take great ownership and personal satisfaction, and a great deal of pride in what we’ve been able to do,” says Dedman.

Starting out with limited distribution within the state of Kentucky, Kentucky Owl bourbon is released in batches; batch number 7 was prepared this spring. Without a distillery of their own, Kentucky Owl utilizes both whiskey produced and aged at other distilleries, along with whiskey custom-made to their specifications; the whiskies are reintroduced to new charred-oak barrels, utilizing a range of different char levels, and the whiskies are mingled to reach the desired profile. The finished whiskey is released at barrel strength, and unfiltered. “It’s the full expression that we’re offering,” Dedman says. “The aim is to eventually head over to all custom-made product.”

The Nelsons similarly turned to existing and custom-made whiskey to get started, and Charlie Nelson notes that this is in keeping with Charles Nelson’s practices in the 19th century, when he also bottled and sold whiskey produced by the Belle Meade distillery. “Back in the day, we had around 30 different labels,” he says, including not only Nelson’s Green Brier but whiskies sold under the Belle Meade label, which the Nelson brothers resurrected for their selection of bourbons, introduced in 2012. “Long term, we’d like to build out a portfolio of different types of whiskey—we’ve been producing a little rye, and we have a few barrels of corn whiskey I think is really good—and maybe even some of the brandy, gins and other things that we did.”

The whiskey currently sold under the Belle Meade label is sourced from other distilleries, and the range includes a straight bourbon and a single-barrel bourbon, along with bourbon finished in casks that previously held sherry, cognac or madeira. But the aim all along has been to produce and sell their own whiskey, and to eventually bring all production in house. The Nelsons opened their Nashville distillery in 2014, and on July 4th of this year—the 182nd anniversary of Charles Nelson’s birth—the brothers will introduce Nelson’s First 108, their first aged Tennessee whiskey. Matured for two years in 30-gallon barrels, the limited-release whiskey—only 108 barrels were made, and the release will be staggered over the next 18 months, and sold only at the Nashville distillery—is a prelude to the eventual introduction of Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee whiskey, which will be aged a minimum of four years in 53-gallon barrels. The debut for Nelson’s Green Brier (which uses a wheated mashbill, without the use of rye) is currently scheduled for early 2019.

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Belle Meade Whiskey was bottled and sold by Charles Nelson in the 19th century. | Photo by Joel Russell.

Kentucky Peerless is following a similar timeline for their whiskey, releasing their first barrels of two-year-old rye whiskey on May 20 (“That’ll be a big day,” says Corky Taylor), with bourbon aged a minimum of four years aiming to make its debut in 2019. Unlike many other distillers, the Taylor family chose not to start out bottling sourced or contract-produced whiskey while waiting for their own stock to age (some income is provided from sales of flavored moonshine-style spirits under the Lucky label). “Making the financial decision to do that wasn’t easy,” says Carson Taylor, noting that his family funded and built the distillery without outside investors, doing much of the construction themselves. But Kentucky Peerless has big plans for their whiskey, producing everything using only a sweet mash (which doesn’t utilize setback from previous batches, unlike the sour-mash process employed by most other whiskey distillers), distilled to a relatively low 131 proof and barreled at 107 proof. Both the rye and the bourbon will be sold at barrel proof, with no water added before bottling. “We’re not going to drop it to 97 or 94 proof,” says Corky. “If you want water in there, you’ll have to add it yourself.”

Next Moves

While Kentucky Peerless and Nelson’s Green Brier prepare for their first releases of aged whiskey made at their new distilleries, Dixon Dedman wound up taking Kentucky Owl in a different direction. Kentucky Owl quickly attained cult-bourbon status, garnering awards following its initial release and priced at close to $200 a bottle, with “secondary market” resale prices rising much higher. As bourbon’s fortunes have blossomed in recent years, larger liquor companies have increasingly sought opportunities in the market, and in January, Dedman and his partners sold the brand to SPI Group—parent company to Stolichnaya Vodka—for an undisclosed sum. While the arrangement will expand the bourbon’s distribution outside its previous Kentucky-only territory, and Dedman remains with his family’s label as blender and brand ambassador, he no longer has an ownership stake in the brand developed by his ancestors. “The decision was one of the most difficult I’ve ever had to make,” Dedman says. The arrangement offered a way to fulfill his mission to revive the family brand, he says, and to maintain the quality and status the bourbon has achieved during its second life. “I see it as a great opportunity to be able to take this whiskey to many more places, in a shorter amount of time, than what we’d have been able to do on our own,” he says.

Last year, the Nelson family sold a minority stake in Nelson’s Green Brier to Constellation Brands (which owns major brands including Corona and Svedka Vodka, and has purchased promising producers including Ballast Point Brewing and High West Distillery). While providing revenue for the fledgling distillery, the arrangement leaves the Nelson brothers at the helm as they prepare to release their family’s first aged whiskey in more than a century.

At Kentucky Peerless, there are no plans to change the ownership structure anytime soon. Corky Taylor came out of retirement to launch the distillery (his previous career was in financial services, and he sold his company before leaving the industry), and Carson shifted over from running a construction company. “We built this as a family owned, family run business. We didn’t build this to sell it,” says Corky Taylor. He says that unlike any of the industries he’s worked with before, whiskey offers a different set of options—and it’s a business that can be built with future generations in mind. “Whiskey is different from any normal business you get into, where you build it and sell it in seven years,” he says. “We’re building this to keep it, and continuously run it from generation to generation. And hopefully some of the people working here now, their sons and daughters will want to work here later on.”

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