As It Happens

New distillery honours Nearest Green — the slave who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey

After Fawn Weaver read an article that named a former slave as the mastermind behind Jack Daniel's, she decided to bring his legacy to the forefront with a new whiskey and distillery that bears his name.

Nearest Green is 'the godfather of Tennessee whiskey' but few people know his name today, says Fawn Weaver

A photograph from the early 20th century shows Jack Daniel, in the white hat, with George Green, the son of Nearest Green, to his right. (Jack Daniel's Distillery)
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Transcript

To the people in his hometown of Lynchburg, Tenn., Nathan Green was known as "Uncle Nearest." 

He was the first African-American master distiller in the United States. He was also enslaved. And a few years ago, the iconic brand Jack Daniel's recognized his role in helping a young Jack Daniel learn how to make Tennessee whiskey.

Now, a new Tennessee distillery has opened that bears Green's name. Fawn Weaver has been the driving force behind the Nearest Green Distillery.

Weaver is the co-founder and chief historian of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey. She spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the distillery and her efforts to honour Green's legacy. Here is part of their conversation.

Fawn, what's it like to finally see this distillery open for business?

Oh man, it's pretty incredible. And every weekend the people pour in and they'll drive in. We've had folks drive 10.5 hours just to be able to do the tour. So seeing that much passion from people around the country is pretty incredible.

Nearest Green was a former slave who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey and perfect the brand's now iconic recipe. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

And what do people learn about Nearest Green and his legacy with whiskey?

They learn about his overall story. He is called the "godfather of Tennessee whiskey" for a good reason, which is, the most famous Tennessee whiskey maker the world has ever known, Jack Daniel, is the person who he taught.

And he was, more recently, acknowledged as their first master distiller. But he's also the first African-American master distiller on record in the United States.

And so, it shines a light on who he was and his incredible legacy. But also that we still have a lot of work to do on our American whiskey side of things.

And so, maybe on some history too, because he was a slave at the time. How come it took so long before the world knew that Jack Daniel had learned how to make whiskey from a slave?

You know, I wish I knew that answer. What I do know is when Jack was alive, and when his descendants were alive, and they ran the distillery, that story was always told.

And so, if you went on tours, they talked about not only Nearest, but they would point you to where his grandchildren lived. And then, after Jack's eldest descendant to run the distillery passed away in 1978, we see the story disappear after that point.

There was this article that came out in The New York Times in 2016. At that time, we spoke with relatives of Nearest Green who said they had known their whole lives that their relative had taught Jack Daniel how to make this whiskey and that it was only very recently that the company wanted to make it more public.

Do you have a sense of why they decided that it was a good thing to let people know?

They had a new president of Jack Daniel's that came in and learned very early on into his time as president that this was a part of the heritage.

But Jack Daniel Distillery was purchased by a company in Kentucky a very long time ago. And so if you are in Kentucky, I imagine, if I put myself in their shoes, you kind of run from the story. Because the story that was being told, or that was understood at that time, was not positive.

It wasn't until I stepped in and began doing the research and interviewing all of Nearest's descendants and interviewing all of Jack's descendants that I found this common thread of love, honour and respect among them — and that the fault of the story being lost was not Jack and his family.

Fawn Weaver at the opening party for Nearest Green Distillery. (Marc Pagani)

And so, once that came forward ... they were able to then embrace the story, because they recognize it's a positive one.

But if you think about slavery here in America, and the distilleries, I can tell you that almost every single bourbon distillery, every American whiskey distillery, that was making whiskey back in the mid-19th century — they all had black slaves as distillers. Very few of them did not. We only know one of their names.

And the only reason we know Nearest's name is because Jack and his family made sure that we did. So you kind of look at it and if you're in Kentucky, where most of this is going on, everybody up there has run from this story.

I guess because it has its roots at a time with Jim Crow laws and this would have been negative publicity for the company if you broadcast the association with slavery, right?

Absolutely.

All of these companies are capitalistic by nature. They are there to make money. It's not altruistic that they're going to go back into their history books and say, hey, we also had a slave.

But what they're able to do is look at the success of Uncle Nearest whiskey, look at the success of Jack Daniel and Brown-Forman who owns them, continuing to grow after this story came out, and say, hey guys, maybe America is in a place where we can recognize those who are at our roots. 

I really do challenge them to bring them forward. I mean, America is not going to crucify you if you take the time to actually honour those who were at the beginning.

But I also understand the fear because when this story first came out, the story went very negative on social media. All of a sudden, Jack was a slave-owner. He stole the recipe. He hid Nearest. All these different things that were not true.

So I think we as America also have to be better about getting the facts of something before we take it automatically to the negative. And I think that will allow for more companies to come forth and say, hey, yeah there were slaves that helped to build us.

But I think we both have to make corrections on both sides because if the companies don't know that they can come forth with that and not literally be skewered, then nobody is going to come forth with it. And then us, as African-Americans, we're never truly going to know our legacy and our heritage.

In this creation of the distillery and the brand, you're working with Nearest Green's descendants, right? 

Both Nearest's and Jack's. We have both at our distillery. Our head of administration, the person who does all of the blending and curating for our very popular 1884 batch, is Nearest's great-great-granddaughter.

On the other side, you have our head of whiskey operations — [who] was the head of whiskey operations for Jack Daniel's for 31 years. It's the family business. That's her lineage.

And so, the two families, when Nearest and Jack were alive, those two families worked side by side and now we're doing it again. It's just that we're doing it at a different distillery.

What do you think Nearest Green would think of all this?

I actually don't think Nearest would care.

Everything that I know about him, he was such a humble human being, he never seemed to care about credit.

Who I think this actually matters to is his pupil, is the person who he taught, is Jack — because his personality would have wanted to see Nearest honoured.

And so, I think if both of them are sitting side by side in heaven looking down at this, I think Nearest is looking at it and going, "Man, you guys are really making a big deal over this," and Jack is sitting there going, "You guys are not making a big enough deal."


Written by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin and John McGill. Interview produced by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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