We ended up getting a late start on our second day in Nashville, which meant that we showed up to our distillery tour and whiskey tasting on empty stomachs – probably not a good thing.
While we’d been tempted to make a trip out to the Jack Daniels facility in Lynchburg, it’s an hour’s drive from Nashville, and Nelson’s Greenbrier Distillery is right downtown and receives excellent ratings. I had booked tickets in advance (only $10 per person including the tasting), which I think is advisable in the high season given the distillery’s popularity. The distillery is located in an interesting neighborhood of old red-brick factory buildings that is clearly experiencing a renaissance as coffee houses, art galleries and even churches move into the empty spaces.
Our guide – one of the fastest talkers I’ve ever come across – gave us a great tour of the distillery and guided us through its history and whiskey making processes. As company histories go, this is a pretty cool one: The current owners are great-great-great grandsons of the founder, Charles Nelson, a German immigrant who built a sizable distillery business by making good-quality liquor and bottling it instead of selling it by the barrel or jug, as was then common. This had the advantage that consumers were more likely to get actual bourbon, rather than some illegally-produced moonshine with the potential to blind or kill them. The business folded when Tennessee introduced prohibition in 1909 (much earlier than the country-wide introduction in 1920), and the Nelson family largely forgot about their heritage. When they rediscovered it by accident, the two brothers jumped on the opportunity and reopened the distillery in 2009. They are currently in the process of creating small-batch bourbon based on their ancestor’s recipes.
Note in the second picture below, on the original label for their Belle Mead brand bourbon, the two stud horses on the front had their names written above them. For obvious reasons, these were removed in the 21st century do-over :-).
We then finally got to the good part – the tasting. Our guide turned out to be very knowledgeable about bourbons and provided some useful tasting notes. I’m not really a hard liquor drinker, so the first sample, which was clear because it hadn’t been aged in an oak barrel, almost made me choke. The second however – that one could grow on me! The other two weren’t half bad either, and tasting portions were generous. We ended up going to town in the gift shop and spent an interesting few minutes afterwards trying to fit our new contraband into the car (whose trunk unfortunately hadn’t grown overnight).
Next on the agenda: food! Feeling a little wobbly after tasting whiskey on an empty stomach, we decided it was time for some hot chicken, one of Nashville’s great culinary contributions to the world. A surprising number of restaurants in Nashville are closed on Sundays, so after a few false starts, we eventually arrived at Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish. Stu ordered the “medium” chicken, which may just have permanently damaged the inside lining of my stomach. I’ll be staying away from “hot” and “very hot”. The catfish was good though!
Then it was back to downtown, which had definitely quietened down compared to Saturday. For dessert, we made a quick stop at the Goo Goo Cluster store (the home of the first combination candy bar – and boy are they good!), before heading over to the Johnny Cash Museum. I had procured tickets online in advance, which does allow you to skip the line, but we found that at least on that day, it wasn’t that long. We ended up having to wait to be let into the actual exhibition anyway, as it was crowded and they were trying to manage the visitor flow. The museum itself is fairly compact, and they’ve squeezed in a lot of memorabilia, as well as listening stations to experience his music. To my shame, I have to admit that when I picture Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, I think of the actors in Walk the Line. Experiencing the museum was a good way to replace those mental images with the real people and to get to know them better. That said, I think someone who’s more familiar with Johnny Cash would have enjoyed it more. Stu found the haunting “Hurt” exhibit, which included props from the video of The Man in Black’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails dirge, to be very powerful.
Back in the afternoon sun, we decided it was time for some pre-dinner drinks. One of the most famous honky tonks on Broadway is Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. As explained by Ryan the previous day, the Ryman Auditorium, where the Grand Ole Opry used to be broadcast from, didn’t allow alcohol or smoking. All the musicians would therefore get their pre-performance lubrication at Tootsie’s before tottering the few steps across the alley. In the second photo, the brick wall in the background is the outside of the Ryman – and if it looks like a church, that’s because it was!
We had reservations at Merchants Restaurant for an early dinner (it was good but not great), and then headed over to the Schermerhorn Symphony Center for a Righteous Brothers concert. If you’re surprised that they’re still around – only one of them is, the other was replaced by a younger model. Between the two of them, they kept us entertained with a medley of Righteous Brothers hits (Unchained Melody, anyone?), songs from that era, and some newer stuff. Was I the only one who didn’t know that the Brother with the deeper voice sang the male part of “I’ve had the time of my life” (a.k.a “the Dirty Dancing song”)?