How Two Brothers Revived a Long-Defunct Family Business

by Kristine Hansen on January 23, 2014
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When Andy and Charlie Nelson opened a business together in Tennessee, they decided not to start from scratch. Instead, the brothers resurrected a family distillery that had been closed since the state enacted prohibition laws in 1909.

Their great-great-great grandfather, Charles Nelson, ran one of the nation’s first major distilleries from the 1860s until his death in 1891. His wife, Louisa, oversaw production at Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery for the next 18 years.

In 2009, after three years of planning, Andy and Charlie revived the business in Nashville. In 2012, they released the first bottles of Belle Meade Bourbon, one of the elder Nelson’s 30 brands, which boasts a “bold character and a smooth finish.” It’s currently sold in 13 states. In July they plan to open a tasting room and visitors center.

The Intuit Small Business Blog spoke with the Nelson brothers (Andy, 31, and Charlie, 29) about what it’s like to revive a business after a 100-year hiatus.

ISBB: How are you putting a modern twist on a century-old business?

Andy: We’re not trying to go too modern. It was done very well a long time ago, and that’s why we want to do it again. At the same time, we understand that we all have iPhones. We’re trying to appeal to the more modern palate and eye, as far as branding goes. However, we do use all the old artwork [including calendars by French artists and letterhead passed down through the generations], and that helps us stick out more. A lot of whiskeys will try to use old-looking branding, but this stuff is actually from 150 years ago.

What will the tasting room be like?

Andy: We [will] have about 30,000 square feet of space: production floor/bottling line, barrelhouse, tourist destination and tasting room, and an events space for a restaurant or catering. The tasting room’s going to have a museum. There is such history there, and we have cool artifacts, including installations on the wall of old bottles and letters.

What were the big challenges of reviving the business, and how did you overcome them?

Charlie: We’ve been working on this product for eight years now, but we’ve only been selling for a year and a half. One of the most difficult things has been raising capital. Building a distillery is a capital-intensive business. You can’t just make whiskey and sell it tomorrow if you want to have a high-quality product. Our bourbon is aged for at least six years.

When we first started on this, we were in our early 20s … with no experience in the industry. [Potential investors said], “You want me to give you a lot of money and expect you’re going to turn this business plan into reality?” Being such a small business, everything costs a little bit more and takes a little bit longer because you aren’t buying in such large quantities. You don’t have the long-established relationships that big guys have. We’re asking people to buy into our products because they believe in the story and believe in us, and the product. That’s one of the reasons we started out working with a contract facility, because it’s so expensive … and we wouldn’t have any revenue for a few years.

Andy: It was so hard for me to hear someone say, “I just can’t invest yet,” because I felt such a fire in my belly. That’s the same way that any small-business owner feels starting a company. It’s hard to really understand that until you’re doing it yourself.

Is this the first time you’ve worked together? How do you divide your duties?

Andy: Both of us were working for our dad’s software company … on different jobs. The common thread is that it’s a family business. Now, we’re the bosses, and [Dad] helps us out every day, because he’s started and run businesses before. Charlie and I are similar in many ways, but we’re also opposites. Charlie is the more outgoing, sales-and-marketing guy and big-picture thinker. I pay more attention to detail and process. I will be in the distillery, and Charlie will be out selling.

Where do you see yourselves and the business in six years?

Andy: In six years, I see our business as a thriving and vital part of the Nashville community and the spirits industry. I see our family name being recognized as a national presence in the whiskey world once again. Six years from now we should have a small handful of new brands released beyond Belle Meade Bourbon. The reason we got back into this business is to make our family proud and, having already been at it for almost eight years, I see the family swelling with pride in the company.

Kristine Hansen is a business writer for Intuit and is passionate about solving small business problems.

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