How Uncle Nearest Whiskey came to honor the black distiller who taught Jack Daniel his stuff

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The idea behind Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey was simple: to honor Nathan “Nearest” Green, the relatively unknown enslaved man who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey.

Of course, the gulf between the formation of an idea and the execution of said idea is often vast. That was particularly true when it came to Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey given that the person with the idea was an author (of the “Happy Wives Club: One Woman’s Worldwide Search for the Secrets of a Great Marriage”) and real estate investor rather than a spirits industry insider. The challenge was all the greater given that she was seeking to gain traction in an environment in which hundreds of distilleries open every year and that she was seeking to launch the brand in about one-quarter of the time it takes most spirits brands to roll out their first products.

But that didn’t stop Fawn Weaver, who discovered Green’s story in 2016 while on vacation in Singapore. Learning Green’s story was “jarring,” she says, given that it meant an enslaved person’s labor and technique were crucial ingredients behind one of the world’s most iconic spirits brands.

Earlier that year Brown-Forman Corp. made the high-profile decision to adjust the story they told about Jack Daniel to a story about Nearest (who is sometimes referred to as Nearis, in error) Green, rather than about Dan Call, a preacher, grocer and distiller, who had previously been credited with teaching Daniel to run a whiskey still. Green had been loaned to Call. Even so, Weaver believed there was more to Green’s story. And she aimed to be the one to tell it; within months of her discovery, she was renting a house in Lynchburg, Tennessee, and working with a number of researchers to produce a book and documentary.

“We were singularly focused on a mission to cement Nearest’s legacy,” Weaver says. “We were driven by passion rather than profit.”

She collected thousands of documents and interviewed dozens of Green’s descendants. That work enabled her to assemble a more well-rounded understanding of Green.

Born in Maryland, Green somehow ended up in Tennessee where he came to operate Call’s still. And, even after Call turned over his distillery to Daniel, and after the Civil War when Green was a free man, he continued in that role until 1884. Weaver claims Green was the first black master distiller on record in the United States and that he helped perfect the so-called Lincoln County Process, a technique in which bourbon is filtered through (or steeps in) charcoal chips before going into casks for aging.

It was in the midst of an interview with one of Green’s descendants that the idea for the whiskey brand came about.

“I asked, ‘How would you like to see (Nearest Green) honored?’” she says. “The answer was: with his name on his own bottle.”

But that’s easier said than done — especially since Weaver and Green’s ancestors sought to produce a unique, high-end whiskey that would appropriately honor Green.

After all, Tennessee whiskey requires time to age. Time that Weaver believed could be better spent building a brand. And so she sought to launch the brand with sourced whiskey and then, after the brand was getting established, it would begin producing its own.

There were only a couple distilleries that had Tennessee whiskey stock that fit her needs. And because she wanted whiskey in line with her research that suggested that Green’s whiskey was 110 proof, she narrowed her options to one distiller who had several mash bills and barrel chars to choose from.

“We had to define what flavor profile Uncle Nearest would find acceptable,” she says. The sweet spot, she says, was between 8 and 9 years old. After settling on a blend, Weaver released 1856, a caramel-colored whiskey with notes of cinnamon and caramel corn with a hint of apple cider and toffee.

She followed that release with 1884 Small Batch, which features a delicate nose of cherries, bananas and licorice. The whiskey has notes of marshmallows, tobacco and cherries and a slight pepper spice.

“Even though we’re sourcing our whiskey, we make it a point to ensure that our whiskey doesn’t taste like anyone else’s whiskey,” Weaver says.

That’s particularly true of 1820, its single-barrel distillery-only releases that have won countless plaudits from Whiskey Advocate, which over the summer declared Barrel No. US-2 is “mature whiskey at its most refined.”

While Uncle Nearest took an unusual path to being, it has quickly cemented its place within the whiskey ecosystem. In 2 1/2 years it expanded into all 50 states and 12 countries. And the fourth quarter of 2019 was the fifth straight quarter in which the brand generated at least 100% year-over-year growth and the eighth straight in which its quarter-over-quarter growth exceeded 35 percent.

That’s a tribute to Weaver’s vision.


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