Among historic names in whiskey like Basil Hayden, Jack Daniel, and Jim Beam is one that has gone forgotten for too long: Nathan “Nearest” Green, the first known African-American master distiller. Despite his groundbreaking contributions to distilling, including the advent of the Lincoln County Process, Green’s valuable additions to the American whiskey community were for many years lost to history, almost certainly due to the fact that when he started distilling, Uncle Nearest — as he was known by his close family and friends — was enslaved.
Seeking to rectify this overlooked piece of history, entrepreneur Fawn Weaver launched Uncle Nearest Whiskey in 2017 to honor Green and his vital role in American whiskey history. Despite its relative youth as a brand, Uncle Nearest has already racked up some impressive stats, named the fastest-growing American whiskey and most successful Black-owned spirits brand in history. Now that you know the basics, here are 10 things you should know about Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey.
In the hills of Lynchburg, Tenn., once stood the Dan Hill Farm, the former home of Lutheran preacher Dan Call. Though a religious man, Call didn’t shy away from running a whiskey distilling operation on his own land, widely known to be produced by Nearest Green, a Black man enslaved by a business known as Landis & Green that “hired” him out to Dan Call for a fee. Following the ratification of the 13th Amendment — just a short time after Jasper Daniel had taken over the distillery’s operations — Daniel asked Green, nicknamed Uncle Nearest, to be his first master distiller, this time as a free man. The two worked together until Uncle Nearest retired from distilling years later.
Prior to Call passing off ownership of the distillery, a seven-year-old orphan named Jasper Daniel was sent to work at the Call farm. Better known by his nickname Jack, the young boy quickly became entranced by the distilling operation on the farm and soon picked up work as Uncle Nearest’s apprentice and was taught the art of producing Tennessee whiskey. When the distillery changed hands from Call to Daniel in 1865, the distillery was renamed, and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey was born.
Approximately 15 years later, when the distillery was relocated to Cave Spring Hollow in Lynchburg, Tenn., where it still stands today, several of Green’s children and grandchildren joined the team. Despite the fact that Nearest Green and his family members became some of the most prominent landowners in Lynchburg — and were wealthier than many white families at the time — Nearest’s name was largely forgotten until the late 2010s.
A driving factor behind the popularity of Uncle Nearest’s whiskey was its smooth, maple-sweet flavors that made it unique from any other whiskey available at the time. In order to achieve those notes, Nearest Green perfected a means of charcoal filtering whiskey through sugar maple timbers — a practice still in use today — that is believed to have originated with enslaved individuals brought to the United States from West Africa, where charcoal was used to filter drinking water. Known as the Lincoln County Process — named after the location of the original Jack Daniel’s distillery — the filtering method involves priming two-by-two-inch sugar maple timbers before igniting them under distillation hoods to eliminate the possibility of sparks. Once charred, the charcoal pellets and whiskey are added to 10 foot vats where impurities are filtered out.
Today, a number of Uncle Nearest’s descendants work at both Jack Daniel’s and Uncle Nearest, including Victoria Eady Butler, Nathan Green’s great-great-granddaughter and the first Black female master blender in American whiskey. When Butler joined the team in 2019, she was under the impression that she would be filling an administrative role but was surprised and “extremely honored” when, just two months into her time at the distillery, she was asked to blend the label’s first small-batch release. Her first blend, Uncle Nearest 1884 Small Batch Whiskey, was an immediate success with consumers and uncovered a passion she “didn’t know was there.” In 2021, Butler was named Master Blender of the Year at VinePair’s annual Next Wave awards.
Despite debuting only six years ago, Uncle Nearest has garnered an impressive following, earning the title of fastest-growing American whiskey brand ever. Since its first release in 2017, Uncle Nearest has experienced over 3,000 percent growth in sales, with a growth rate of approximately 700 percent in 2022 alone. Uncle Nearest whiskey was also the most awarded American whiskey and bourbon brand three years in a row — 2019, 2020, and 2021 — and earned a spot in the top 1,000 companies featured on the 2022 Inc. 5000 list. Uncle Nearest was one of just six spirits brands included on the list.
In addition to being the fastest-growing American whiskey brand in history, last year, Uncle Nearest was officially named the most successful Black-owned distillery in the world. In December 2022, the brand announced that it had officially crossed the $100 million sales mark and is on track to more than double this already impressive sales figure by the end of 2023. Furthermore, in the 18 months since opening its newly expanded distillery on Juneteenth in 2021, Uncle Nearest has welcomed over 100,000 visitors. In an interview with Ebony Magazine, Butler expressed that, despite people waiting for the brand to fail, “Uncle Nearest and Nearest Green Distillery aren’t just here to stay, but grow and sustain at a pace never seen before in our industry.”
In 2016, Fawn Weaver was on a trip to Singapore with her husband when she came across a photo in The New York Times International Edition of Jack Daniel surrounded by his entire distilling team. Rather than the center of the photograph being reserved for Daniel, the position was instead filled by George Green, the only non-white man in the picture. Intrigued by the photograph and interested to learn more about the Black man in the photograph, Weaver traced the story back to Tennessee and discovered that it had been Nearest Green, George’s father, who had taught Jack all he knew. Shortly after, she purchased the 300-acre Dan Hill Farm where the story originated and opened the Nearest Green Distillery in nearby Shelbyville, despite having no previous experience in distilling.
Before Weaver uncovered his treasured history, Uncle Nearest’s name was nowhere to be found in whiskey histories. In a 2017 interview with The New York Times, Weaver revealed that once she landed in Lynchburg, she “went on three tours of [Jack Daniel’s] distillery, and nothing, not a mention of him.” Rather than staying in the region for only a few days, as planned, Weaver rented a house in Lynchburg where she spent the following weeks researching Uncle Nearest and his role in distilling history — poring over 10,000 documents, some of which were gathered from Green’s descendants still living in the area.
In March 2017, shortly after purchasing the farm, Weaver invited Mark I. McCallum — former executive vice president of Jack Daniel’s Brands at Brown-Forman — to the farm where the two spent hours going over Weaver’s finding. After the meeting, it was decided that Nearest Green would be placed at the forefront of Jack Daniel’s’ history and in May of the same year, he was officially named the first master distiller of Jack Daniel’s, bumping Jack himself to the No. 2 spot.
When Weaver purchased Call’s former farmland and made the decision to build a whiskey brand in honor of Uncle Nearest’s legacy, supporting Green’s descendants and uplifting marginalized communities was of central importance. As such, when forming the whiskey label, Weaver established a board of all minorities and hired an exclusively female leadership team — breaking the molds built by her mostly white and male predecessors. Furthermore, Weaver is not just the CEO of Uncle Nearest Whiskey but also the founder of the Nearest Green Foundation, a nonprofit offering college scholarships to Nearest Green’s descendants.
The distillery also partnered with Jack Daniel’s to create the Nearest and Jack Advancement Initiative in 2020 to promote diversity and equity in American whiskey distilling. The two distilleries pledged a combined $5 million meant to create the Nearest Green School of Distilling — a STEM-based curriculum at Motlow State Community College with a focus on distilling. Additionally, the pledge is meant to develop a leadership acceleration program for apprenticeships and establish a business incubation program to provide resources to African American entrepreneurs in the spirits industry. Independently, Weaver also launched a Black business booster program with the goal of helping these brands improve their operations.
Before the United States government acknowledged the threat posed by Covid-19, Weaver was already rushing to help her community stay safe and healthy. Early on, when the government advised the public against wearing masks to slow the spread, Weaver allegedly wrote on Uncle Nearest’s internal Facebook page, “I’m calling bullshit,” and got to work protecting the safety of her and her employees and the safety of her community through the Brother’s Keeper Initiative. Through the initiative, Weaver purchased enough masks to supply her entire team at Uncle Nearest and — upon learning that many frontline workers did not have personal protective equipment — the distillery’s visitor center was transformed into a shipment hub where N95s and cloth masks were packaged and sent around the country to those who requested them. To date, the Nearest Green Foundation has distributed approximately 300,000 masks to frontline workers as well as the Black and Latinx communities, which have been particularly impacted by the health crisis.
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