Formerly Enslaved Black Man Nearest Green Taught Jack Daniel Everything He Knew About Whiskey. Today, the Founder of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey Celebrates His Legacy.
“I wish I had more brilliant forethought,” Fawn Weaver, founder and CEO of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, says of the company’s founding, “but it was more serendipitous.”
The stars began to align for Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey with the June 25, 2016 publication of a New York Times article by Clay Risen, who delves into the history of Jack Daniel’s, one of the world’s best-selling whiskeys, in honor of the distillery’s 150th anniversary. Risen recounts a tale familiar to many whiskey aficionados: A young Daniel comes to work on preacher Dan Call’s farm in Lynchburg, Tennessee, where the preacher, who also happens to be a grocer and distiller, teaches him the tricks of the whiskey trade.
But that’s not the whole story — not even close. Today, the Brown-Forman Corporation, which has owned Jack Daniel Distillery since 1956, acknowledges that the preacher didn’t teach Daniel how to distill at all. A formerly enslaved Black man by the name of Nathan “Nearest” Green, who also worked on Call’s farm, did. In his 2016 piece, Risen writes that although “the story was never a secret,” it “may never be definitively proved.”
That wasn’t good enough for Weaver, who, upon reading the article, was immediately fascinated by Green’s story. “One because I’m African American,” Weaver says, “and two because at the time, it was right before my 40th birthday, and up until that point, I’d never known of another ubiquitous brand that we all know and love that could pinpoint an African American was there at the beginning, although we know that for a lot of our brands, African Americans were there at the beginning.”
Weaver set out to find the definitive proof of Green’s involvement. “The only way that the story was actually going to hold up in the history books was if it was proven, not just speculated about,” she says. “It couldn’t just be oral history. So I took on the project, just looking at it as a book, as a movie, as something that’s really interesting in terms of African American contributions and history and America.
“I happen to be one of those people that absolutely loves America and wants to see it its best self,” Weaver continues. “And so just being able to represent that portion of it, kind of rewriting, if you will, at least a story during that period of time, was very intriguing to me.”
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“If that doesn’t scream of serendipity and that this was meant to happen, I don’t know what does.”
But Weaver’s project soon took on an even greater scope. She traveled to Lynchburg, Tennessee, where it all began, to speak to Green’s descendants, who wished to see their ancestor receive the credit he so deserved. It was there that Weaver also visited Call’s farm — which happened to be for sale. “It had been on the market for 15 months,” Weaver explains. “So if that doesn’t scream of serendipity and that this was meant to happen, I don’t know what does. My husband and I immediately bought the farm, not knowing what we would do with it, just knowing that it was a great piece of American history, and we’d be crazy not to.”
Ultimately, Weaver’s ambitious, 12-month-long research project would uncover more than 5,000 artifacts and documents from five different states, and, with the help of more than 20 historians, archivists, archeologists, conservators and genealogists, who together conducted more than 2,500 hours of research, confirm four indisputable truths: Jack Daniel never owned any slaves, and Green was the first African American distiller on record in the U.S., the first master distiller for Jack Daniel Distillery and the wealthiest African American in Lynchburg.
The wheels continued to turn, and it wasn’t long before Weaver realized she was on the fast track to founding a whiskey company that would honor the man who taught Daniel everything he knew. “Really, truly, the only thing I didn’t do was say ‘no’ to any opportunity or any lead,” she says, “and that’s really how this came to be.”
In July 2017, Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey launched under the umbrella of private, family-owned investment company Grant Sidney, Inc., which Weaver founded in 2010, and for which she serves as CEO. Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey was the most awarded American whiskey in 2019 and 2020, and its three ultra-premium whiskeys have won more than 150 awards and accolades worldwide.
“When we released the brand, almost no one knew the name Nearest Green,” Weaver says. “Right now, I’m on a 100 cities in 100 days tour, and visiting all the different cities across this country, and his name is known everywhere I’m going, and that is remarkable for a turnaround in less than five years. This is a country that has a lot of stories to be told, so to have millions of people telling one person’s story is pretty extraordinary, and it’s pretty amazing to be able to be a part of that.”
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Image credit: Courtesy of Uncle Nearest
“It’s a process that continues to be passed down from generation to generation in West Africa to this day.”
Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey are both straight bourbon whiskey and follow the same rules, Weaver says. “The only thing that gives us a Tennessee whiskey designation versus Kentucky bourbon is one the states, geography,” she laughs, “and the second is what Nearest Green taught. It is taking a traditional bourbon distillate and running it very slowly through sugar, maple charcoal, to purify it before it goes into the barrels to age.”
The process arrived in the U.S. with West African enslaved people, Weaver explains. “And it’s a process that continues to be passed on from generation to generation in West Africa to this day,” she says. “More than 90% of the trees that are cut down are for two things — for charcoal and for fuel. And it’s because they continue to purify their food and to filter their water using charcoal to this day.”
It’s unclear exactly who taught Green the special distilling process, but records reveal it was used in Kentucky for more than 60 years before Green was born, Weaver says, and it eventually made its way to Lincoln County, Tennessee, not far from Moore County, where Lynchburg sits. Despite its prevalence at one point, the process was costlier and took longer than others, and some distillers began to move away from it.
“But Jack Daniel did not,” Weaver explains. “And because he never went away from it and really staked his claim in it, we still have Tennessee whiskey to this day because of the process that Nearest taught Jack and the process that Jack made sure continued to be a part of his company, and really the most important part of his company.”
Weaver’s favorite way to enjoy Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey is neat, though she also loves to try different cocktails that incorporate the spirit. “If I’m out, I want to see the mixologist do what only they can do,” she says. “And so generally, my call at the bar is always dealer’s choice, and I give them the three ingredients I don’t like mixed with Uncle Nearest: campari, amaro and aperol. I just let them go wild with every other ingredient they have.
“On this tour, I taste probably eight different Uncle Nearest cocktails a day,” she adds. “Because everywhere I go, they’re making me different cocktails, and they’re unbelievably delicious.” Some of Weaver’s recommendations include a classic daiquiri made with Uncle Nearest instead of rum, an espresso martini that subs the whiskey in for vodka or gin, and a piña colada that features the spirit.
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“I wanted to make sure that Uncle Nearest wasn’t the only one.”
Although Green had been the wealthiest African American in Lynchburg, Tennessee, Weaver found that that family wealth hadn’t carried through to the current generation — part of the discrepancy can be attributed to Tennessee’s lengthy period of prohibition, Weaver explains, which began a decade before federal prohibition and lasted 30 years. As a result, almost two full generations of Green’s descendents were completely separated from that family legacy built on the whiskey business.
Weaver and her husband Keith Weaver, who serves as co-founder and board member of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, wanted to help set Green’s descendants up for success. To that end, the Weavers have established the Nearest Green Foundation and the Nearest Green Legacy Scholarship, which covers the cost of college tuition for Green’s direct descendants.
“I didn’t care where they went to college, how expensive it was,” Weaver says. “All they had to do was get in, and they immediately got a scholarship, and the only thing they had to do to maintain that scholarship was get a B average. Every semester, we put a new round of Green’s descendants through college.”
But the scholarship doesn’t necessarily end with college graduation; it also covers continuing secondary education. “I’d love to see as many get PhDs as possible,” Weaver says, “and we’ll continue paying for it all the way through.”
Weaver’s commitment to lifting others up doesn’t stop with Green’s direct descendents; Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey is the first BIPOC-founded and led independent spirit brand that has found such extraordinary success in the industry, and Weaver’s on a mission to ensure it’s not the last. “I wanted to make sure that Uncle Nearest wasn’t the only one, and that I didn’t get to the end of this journey in 40 more years, and then write a book that’s no longer really relevant,” she says.
So, Weaver launched the Black Business Booster program to help BIPOC, specifically Black-owned, businesses that are at the same level of excellence as Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey. The Black Business Booster program shares connections with these business owners, helps them obtain distributors, puts them in touch with potential investors and more — anything they might need in the way of support.
Weaver also helped get the Nearest and Jack Initiative off the ground in 2020. The initiative aims to diversify the American whiskey industry, both in terms of entrepreneurship and executive leadership, with its Nearest Green School of Distilling, Leadership Acceleration Program and Business Incubation Program.
Additionally, Weaver created the Uncle Nearest Venture Fund to invest in the most promising BIPOC- and women-founded, owned and led brands. “We wanted to make sure that as we were coming up, as we were making money, we were taking that money and recycling it back into the opportunities of others to become the next Uncle Nearest,” Weaver explains.
The $50 million fund’s announcement was timed to mark the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, in which a white mob destroyed an affluent Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma and killed hundreds of its residents. To date, the fund has invested $2 million in Jack From Brooklyn’s sorel liqueur; $2 million in Ian Burrell’s Equiano Rum Company; and, most recently, $5 million in mixology company Hella Cocktail Co.
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“Do it with excellence or don’t do it at all, because this country is not set up for you to succeed.”
Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey launched the second and main phase of its 323-acre Uncle Nearest Distillery in Shelbyville, Tennessee last year on Juneteenth. Weaver calls the distillery’s second-phase opening a “forever marker” of the holiday. Today, thousands of people visit the distillery every weekend, and its 30-minute tours are sold out all week long. For this year’s Juneteenth celebrations, the company’s master blender Victoria Eady Butler, Green’s great-great-granddaughter, will host a series of events to recognize the occasion.
Weaver is always on the lookout for the next challenge; in fact, her drive to tackle the seemingly impossible is what inspired her current 100 Cities in 100 Days tour. “Last year, when bars and restaurants were opening up, people were still afraid to go,” Weaver says. “I knew that a lot of people followed what I did on social media, so I used it as an opportunity to begin going to our restaurants and bars that support us in all the different states. And I think I went to 38 different states — every day I woke up in a different state.
“By the time I got to maybe the 21st state or so,” she continues, “I started getting direct messages from people going ‘At this point, we’re just watching to see if you could finish.'” Of course, Weaver did finish, and she decided to up the ante — to 100 cities in as many days.
Over the course of her journey, Weaver has met people from all different walks of life who are united in their appreciation for Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey. “We’re all embracing the story of Uncle Nearest and the need to share that legacy,” she says. “And so to have people from every background, literally every socioeconomic background, every religion, straight, gay, everything across the board, I am meeting on this tour, and there is a point of connection — and that’s the legacy of Nearest Green. That is my favorite part, hands down, of what’s happening on this tour.”
Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey might bring all manner of people together, but, of course, the playing field, in life and in business, is still far from equal, and the systemic issues that kept Green’s legacy hidden for so long persist in the U.S. today.
To aspiring BIPOC and women founders, Weaver says, “Do it with excellence or don’t do it at all, because this country is not set up for you to succeed. This country, although I love it, is set up for you to fail. And so if you’re not going to do it with excellence and with consistency, bow out and get a job. Period. If you are going to do it with excellence and with consistency over time, don’t let anybody slow you down — no one. Just keep going after it, because the only people that fail doing it with excellence and with consistency are those who give up before they succeed.”