New whiskey honors slave who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey

Nathan Green may have helped perfect the Lincoln County Process.

July 14, 2019 07:03
4 minute read.
Nearest Green's son, George Green, seated next to Jack Daniel.

Nearest Green's son, George Green, seated next to Jack Daniel.. (photo credit: JACK DANIEL'S DISTILLERY)


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Uncle Nearest, a new whiskey distillery, is planning to open in September to honor Nathan "Nearest" Green, an African American slave who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey, CBS News reported on Friday.

Green is the first known African American master distiller in the United States.

The distillery was launched by author Fawn Weaver, who has worked to uncover and share Green's history. She raised about $20 million to take over the whiskey's production and is the first female and first person of color to run a major whiskey or spirit brand.

"If you want to appreciate jazz, you better know who Louis Armstrong was, and if you want to appreciate American whiskey, you should know who Nathan Nearest Green was," said Jeffrey Wright from HBO's "Westworld." Wright made a short film about Green's story to honor him.

Weaver searched for more than 2,500 hours and spoke to more than 100 relatives in order to find out the true story of Nathan Nearest Green, according to CBS News.

"Finally, one of the elders in the community says, 'Well, you know his name wasn't really Nearest.' Well, his name was Nathan and he's from Maryland," said Weaver.

Green began working with an orphan named Jack Daniel in the late 1850's, when Daniel started working for Dan Call, a wealthy landowner and whiskey distiller.

After Daniel showed interest in Call's whiskey business, Call brought him to meet Green.

"'This is Uncle Nearest," he told him. "The best whiskey maker I know," explains a video about Green's history on Uncle Nearest's website.

Green then started teaching Daniel everything he knew. After Green was freed at the end of the war, he became Daniel's master distiller.

"And then after slavery he started his own company and the person he went to first was his mentor, and he did not see race as a barrier," explained Weaver, CBS News reported.

There are no known pictures of Nathan Green, but a photo from around 1900 shows Green's son sitting next to Daniel and other distillery workers.

"We just need to know stories like this because it smashes the lies," said Wright. "You have this... great iconic American brand, and… this thing that is representative of something that sits in our soul that's created by the coming together of two families… an unlikely partnership."

"When we've known and understood the weight of this story, all I can offer is anything we can do to continue to honor the name of Nearest, we will do," said Mark McCallum, president of Jack Daniel's brands, according to CBS News.

Green may have helped perfect the Lincoln County Process, a step in the whiskey making process which is a requirement for being categorized as Tennessee Whiskey, according to Uncle Nearest's website.

About 95% of the region around Lynchburg, Tennessee (where the Jack Daniel's distillery is located) has accepted Green's role in the history of Tennessee whiskey, explained William Hussey Jr., a member of the Tennessee Squires, which serves as a sort of Jack Daniel's fan club. However, there's still "the 5% of old Southern boys who could care less, would like to keep everything hidden."

"Every single time you take that sip, you should be telling the story of Nearest," said Weaver. "That's how we make sure that his legacy is not only cemented, but it continues on beyond us, to the next generation."

Victoria Butler, Green's great-great-granddaughter, wished her grandmother could see the whiskey. The idea for the whiskey under Green's name came first from a member of the Daniel family and then from the Green family, CBS News reported.

"Fawn [Weaver] was like, 'What can we do to keep Nearest Green's legacy alive?'" explained Butler. "And one family member said, 'Put his name on a bottle.'"

Green still has three descendants who work at the Jack Daniel's distillery. Weaver emphasized that she doesn't consider them competition "whatsoever."

"When we go out into the marketplace, we are selling 'Uncle Nearest,'" Weaver said. "But we are talking about Jack in a way that makes you want to drink Jack Daniel as well."

"This is a story that unifies us… and I think we so desperately need that now," Wright said. "We forever will be in this thing together — and that's the story of Nathan Nearest Green, 'Uncle Nearest,' and Jack Daniel."

Uncle Nearest is sold in 48 states and 148 countries. Some of the proceeds from the sales go to a foundation to ensure that all of Green's descendants get a college education.

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