In 1866, Jack Daniel founded what would become one of America's longest-running and best selling brands of whiskey. Today, he's a household name among drinkers, but he didn't do it alone.
The story of Uncle Nearest, Daniel's mentor, is one less told.
Daniel learned how to make the spirit from a slave named Nathan "Nearest" Green, who worked on a farm near where Daniel grew up in Lynchburg, Tenn., according to author Fawn Weaver, who uncovered the story. Green is the country's first documented African-American master distiller, Weaver's research found, and he was first at the helm when Daniel opened his distillery.
Green's heritage is a fascinating excavation to come from a period defined by racial inequality. Now, Weaver is helping solidify Uncle Nearest's legacy with, among other things, a line of whiskeys. The first, Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Aged Whiskey, became available in Texas in January.
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'We want his name on a bottle'
Weaver, who enjoys her whiskey neat, became interested Uncle Nearest's story after reading about a slave who was said to have taught Daniel the art of whiskey making. In 2016, when Jack Daniel's distillery celebrated its 150th anniversary, parent company Brown-Forman drew attention to Green's important role when it decided to acknowledge his contributions during distillery tours.
Weaver visited the Jack Daniel's facility shortly after reading the news but didn't see any mentioned of Nearest Green, she told The New York Times.
That's when she really started digging.
Weaver spent more than a year collecting documents and artifacts and speaking to Green's descendants. One, she remembers, was 106 years old.
Weaver's original plan was to write a book about Uncle Nearest, tell his story through a movie and "cement" his place in history with a network of whiskey bars across America, she says. The mission statement for the Nearest Green Foundation that she incorporated promises to "shine a light on those who have been forgotten." The book and movie are still forthcoming; Weaver nixed the idea to open bars in his honor after speaking with relatives.
"As I began talking to them and trying to figure out, 'Well, what's important to you for your legacy?' They were very clear," Weaver tells GuideLive. "They said, 'We want his name on a bottle.' And someone in the group raised his hand, and said, 'But none of that 80-proof crap.'"
Weaver enlisted Sherrie Moore, who spent 31 years as director of whiskey production at Jack Daniel's Distillery, to oversee the Uncle Nearest product. While Uncle Nearest 1856 is inspired by its namesake, the whiskey is not derived from an official Jack Daniel's recipe. A soon to be released unaged version, however, is based on a 19th century recipe saved from a fire in Lynchburg, the origin of which has not been identified.
Rewriting history with a positive story
For Weaver, launching Uncle Nearest whiskey is not just about preserving history — though Green is now memorialized on Jack Daniel's website and in distillery tours. It's also about keeping his traditions alive.
Both the aged whiskey and upcoming silver version of Uncle Nearest 1856 are created using the Lincoln County Process, a charcoal mellowing filtration method that distinguishes Tennessee whiskey from other bourbons. Charcoal mellowing was Green's specialty, according to Weaver, who traced the process back to its origins in West Africa.
"Whiskey in general, we can track every bit of it back to the Scottish or the Irish, every aspect of it, except charcoal mellowing," Weaver says. "Why? Because we were property, not people. ... It just came out of thin air, as far as what we've always said."
Uncle Nearest 1856 is produced by a third-party distillery in Nashville, at least until Weaver can open a proprietary operation. She recently purchased a 270-acre farm in Shelbyville, Tenn., about 20 miles from Lynchburg, that will be the site of a new Nearest Green Distillery, complete with a tasting room, bottling plant and barn-turned-rickhouse where the whiskey will be stored. Plans include planting a 100-acre corn "field of dreams," and revitalizing an onsite arena as a country concert venue.
Another barn will be converted into a museum called the Nearest Green History Walk, which will spotlight African Americans' contributions to whiskey making, including the charcoal mellowing process.
Weaver intentionally unearthed Uncle Nearest's story to celebrate his role in American history, not demonize the Jack Daniel's brand. Daniel, she is adamant to note, never owned a slave. He and Green worked side-by-side on a farm owned by a preacher named Dan Call, when Green was a slave and Daniel was a boy. Daniel opened his distillery in 1866 — three years after the Emancipation Proclamation was ratified.
For the time, the two men had an unusual and inspiring relationship, one Weaver hopes will resonate with generations to come.
"People don't mind rewriting history with a story that's positive. They don't want to rewrite history if it's going to put people at odds," Weaver says. "In this case, we're not putting people at odds, we're bringing people together."