Bucking the misconception that whiskey has historically been a Caucasian craft, Uncle Nearest appeared on shelves in 2017 with a new narrative: Jack Daniel wasn’t actually taught how to make whiskey by his white preacher, but rather a slave that worked on the preacher’s property, Nathan “Nearest” Green. Daniel took an interest in his preacher’s still, but was taught to use it by Green—a piece of the popular brand’s history that was almost never publicized. That lore wasn’t even mentioned until the brand’s 150th anniversary.
When the news broke, headlines appeared by the dozens. One of which caught the attention of Fawn Weaver, an author, historian and real estate investor. Weaver’s disbelief turned into fascination, then into a quest. “I knew there was an even bigger story than the one Clay [of the New York Times] had written. I knew we’d not even scratched the surface yet,” she says.
Though Daniel publicly praised his mentor, the brand that lived on long after ignored him. Green was written out of the Jack Daniel’s brand backstory—even though he was mentioned in Daniel’s official biography over 50 times. Weaver uncovered thousands of documents, traced Daniel and Green’s histories and came to a formal conclusion—with the help of a couple of members of Green’s lineage and supporting documents: Nathan Green, once freed, was the first master distiller of the Jack Daniel’s brand and the first African-American known to hold such title.
After Weaver’s efforts, spirits conglomerate Brown-Forman adopted Green as a keystone of their history. Further, Weaver purchased the farm where Green taught Daniel to make whiskey, a plot of land in downtown Lynchburg, to make a Nearest Green memorial park. Then she launched her own brand (co-founded with her husband) and called it Uncle Nearest.
“Historically, we finally have an American spirit that commemorates an African-American. That has never happened. Can you believe that?” Weaver says. “African-Americans have been in this country exactly 400 years and, from the beginning, were always involved in the making of American spirits. Yet, prior to Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, there has never been one to honor any of those who were there at the beginning, making one of the most cherished and respected American exports around the world.”
She continues, “The industry hasn’t seen something like this before, so the immediate thought is, ‘There has to be some bigger company behind this.’ My husband’s 6’4″—if that counts.” Weaver jokes. “We are a women-led company. Kate Jerkens has overseen our entire sales and marketing efforts from day one. Folks give me a lot of credit for growing this brand—allow me to pass that credit on to her, as she is truly the reason this brand is defying all odds. Sherrie Moore, our head of whiskey and distillery operations, was the first woman executive in whiskey operations for a major brand. For 31 years, she worked in the Tennessee whiskey business with little recognition. The entire executive team at Uncle Nearest is women. That has never happened in this industry from a major brand.”
Sourced from other Tennessee producers (to an exact recipe and standard of quality), the Uncle Nearest brand has two iterations: Uncle Nearest 1856 and Uncle Nearest 1820. The latter is aged 11 years and boasts a smoothness that’s impressive for its complexity. The former is closest to an original recipe—obviously, with added features. Both whiskeys are slow-filtered through the Lincoln County Process, a method of passing the whiskey through sugar maple charcoal to invoke smoothness and flavor that was shown to Daniel by Green. This is another method that is traditionally whitewashed and misattributed; the method likely has roots in West Africa and was a step in illicit production of alcohol by slaves that pre-dates formal distilleries, many of which slaves were purchased to operate.
“It seems more and more likely that the slaves who arrived in America, and were tasting their masters’ harsh whiskey, decided to utilize a process from home to smooth it out a bit,” Weaver explains. “As this special charcoal filtering is the only distinction between Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, if we can prove this, that would make Tennessee whiskey one of the greatest homages to the Africans who arrived here by boat in 1619, and what better way to honor Nearest than to shine a light on his ancestors.”
As far as filtering goes, what was traditionally done for three to five days is executed over 14 for Uncle Nearest. The whiskey goes through a final natural carbon filtration, primarily comprised of coconut shells (which lightens the final color). Entering barrels at 110 proof, the whiskey is cut with water before bottling (to enter at 100 proof). Altogether, it boasts a fuller flavor and more precise punch.
The Uncle Nearest brand is just a segment of Weaver’s efforts. It should be mentioned that the whiskeys are both critically and commercially beloved—they score quite well and their loyal customers tell the story as well as any of their sales staff. “They are more than customers. They are more than guests. Every person who shares this story becomes stewards of this story. We don’t just want people to buy a bottle of Uncle Nearest, raise a glass and talk about its great taste—although, we certainly appreciate it. This is about more than whiskey. This is about a legacy lost, then found, and now redeemed.”
Weaver has plans to open a distillery—where they’ll begin making their whiskeys—and a music venue and a tasting room, all alongside the efforts of the Nearest Green Foundation, which provides college scholarships to direct descendants of Green.
“I began writing a book about Nearest nearly three years ago and have no idea when it will finish,” Weaver says. “I still don’t know what year he died, where he died or where he’s buried. I have a good idea, but still can’t prove it. Missing such key facts bothers me.” She continues that there are “consequences to getting it wrong. Nearest’s story was forgotten for so long that I can’t risk even one inaccuracy, and that’s difficult when you’re talking about a man who was once a slave—considered property in the eyes of the United States, versus a human being. The records are thin and so much of what we know about him is through oral history, so continuing to research and tell this story every day is a labor of love.”
Though its growth is measurable by demand (Uncle Nearest whiskey is now in 47 states and eight countries.), there’s so much more here than the liquid and its sales numbers. With every encounter, whether it’s a sip or the purchase of a bottle, Nearest Green is retroactively cemented into both American and whiskey history—and he’ll be there in the future, too.