The story of Nearest Green, America’s first known Black master distiller

When you hear the name Jack Daniel, whiskey probably comes to mind.

But what about the name Nathan “Uncle Nearest” Green?

In 2016, The New York Times published a story about the distiller’s “hidden ingredient” – “help from a slave.” In the article, the brand officially acknowledged that an enslaved man, Nearest Green, taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey.

The Jack Daniel’s company probably didn’t realize that officially amending its history to recognize Nearest Green as its first master distiller in 2017 would get so much attention. It ended up inspiring author Fawn Weaver to set out on a quest to unearth Nearest Green’s full story – what ended up as a 12-month research project involving more than 20 historians, archivists, archaeologists, conservators and genealogists. Weaver would go on to start a whiskey company of her own that she named after Green.

EC: think we need a more complete ID of Fawn Weaver that includes the fact that she owns Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey. Was anything published as a result of this research project?

NL: See above suggestion. I don’t think she ended up publishing anything. Stefanie, correct me if I’m wrong. Maybe mention that Weaver donated a lot of what she discovered to Museum of African American History –

As a scholar of tourism, I’m interested in amplifying underrepresented voices as part of the travel experience. So it’s been thrilling to see the story of Green – an accomplished Black man with a rich, nuanced life – finally being told.

Popular media, through shows like Netlix’s “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America,” have finally started to acknowledge the ways in which Black Americans have contributed to some of America’s most iconic dishes and spirits.

For example, James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef, traveled with Jefferson to France in 1784, where he trained in French cooking at the highest culinary level. He ended up being instrumental in introducing legendary dishes like macaroni and cheese, ice cream and French fries to the United States.

James Hemings eventually trained his younger brother, Peter, to take his place. In the fall of 1813, Peter Hemings learned brewing, and it’s likely that he became the the first Black person in America to be professionally trained as a craft beer brewer.

Neither James nor Peter Hemings were hobby chefs or leisure brewers; this was their forced way of life. And the enslaved people who crafted new dishes didn’t set out to change American cuisine. They simply needed to make do with what little they had.

Enslaved cooks were responsible for introducing ingredients and the know-how of complex and labor-intensive dishes like oyster stew, gumbo, jambalaya and fried fish. However, their voices, names, and creations were routinely left out from cook books, where their White owners received the credit and notoriety.

Around the mid-1800s, Green’s enslavers were a firm known as Landis & Green, who “leant out” Nearest Green for a fee to local preacher Dan Call. This was typical in an era in which enslaved men were commonly involved in the making of spirits due to its reputation as dangerous, dirty work.

Nearest was known as a skilled distiller who specialized in a process known as sugar maple charcoal filtering – also called the Lincoln County Process. This process – which some historians believe was inspired by the techniques of enslaved men and women who had used charcoal to filter their water and purify their foods in West Africa – gave Greene’s whiskey a unique smoothness.

Years later, Jack Daniel, a seven-year-old white orphan, was sent to the Call farm to be a chore boy. Eventually, he became Green’s apprentice and was taught the Lincoln County Process which differentiates bourbon from Tennessee whiskey – making Nearest responsible for the Tennessee Whiskey we know today. As Victoria Eady-Butler, Green’s decedent and former employee of Jack Daniel’s Distillery, noted that there would “never have been Jack Daniel’s made without a Green on the property.”

After emancipation, Rev. Call sold his distillery to Jack Daniel. Daniel appointed Nearest Green, now a free man, to be the Jack Daniel Distillery’s first master distiller and thus, first Black master distiller on record in the United States. Sometime after 1881, Jack moved his distillery to its current Cave Spring Hollow location where several of Green’s children and grandchildren went to work for Daniel.

To the Daniel family’s credit, they ended up giving the Green family the recognition and money they deserved. Nearest’s second-born and fourth-born sons, George and Eli, distilled whiskey on the Call Farm alongside Jack Daniel. Although no images of Nearest Green exist, a photograph of one of his sons, George, sitting next to Jack Daniel reflects their family’s mutual respect, admiration and trust.

Altogether, seven generations of Nearest Green’s family have worked for the Jack Daniel Distillery and continue to work there to this day.

Jack Daniel and his descendants made a lot of money from their whiskey company over the years. In 1956, the family sold it to Brown Forman for US$20 million dollars – about $190 million in today’s money.

While Nearest Green and his descendants do appear to have been paid fairly by the Daniel family, they didn’t own any of the distillery – and, consequently, didn’t get any of those millions.

For decades, Nearest Green’s name, legacy and contribution to whiskey were largely unknown to anyone outside Lynchburg, Tennessee – even though, after the Civil War, according to Census data, Nearest Green and his family owned sizable plots of land and were wealthier than many white families living in Lynchburg.

Weaver, the author and entrepreneur, was able to meet Green’s descendants during her research and asked them how they would like to see him honored. They told her that “putting his name on a bottle, letting people know what he did, would be great.”

With that information in hand, Weaver, in 2019, set out and raised $40 million to create Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey and opened the Nearest Green Distillery in Shelbyville, Tennessee, with Victoria Eady-Butler, a descendant of Green, as the distillery’s master blender. EC: assuming she also profits from this company? let’s tweak this paragraph – sounds promotional and as if she did this as a charitable act

NL: What about…

This gave Weaver the idea to start her own whiskey company that honored Green’s legacy. By 2019 she had raised $40 million from investors to create Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey. Later that year, she opened the Nearest Green Distillery in Shelbyville, Tennessee. Weaver now serves as CEO of the company with Victoria Eady-Butler, a descendant of Green, employed as the distillery’s master blender.

Green’s story – like so much of African-American history – was long whitewashed, silenced, or erased from American history textbooks and heritage tourism sites.

Now tourists can’t visit the Jack Daniel distillery or Nearest Green Distillery without reading and seeing tributes to Green.

Unearthing and celebrating stories like Green’s is just the the start of what? Scholars and travel companies are working in tandem to expand marketing and storytelling in ways that include overlooked or silenced perspectives.

In 2020, Nomadness Travel Tribe partnered with Tourism RESET, where I serve as a co-director and research fellow, to publish a report that included both qualitative in-depth interviews and a quantitative survey of more than 5,000 tourists to better understand the travel experiences of Black and people of color.

Meanwhile, the Black Travel Alliance, also in partnership with Tourism RESET, recently launched a new time-line and website, History Of Black Travel, which seeks to educate the public on “how the African diaspora traveled to every part of the Earth.”

It’s all part of a larger effort to create spaces for dialogue around difficult topics like race and enslavement, while authentically honoring and amplifying the voices and legacies of Black Americans who helped to build the United States.

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