The Uncle You Never Knew

The Uncle You Never Knew

Words by Christine Van Dyk

Tennessee whiskey was born in the hollows of Lynchburg by a man you’ve probably never heard of, a black slave known as Uncle Nearest. His given name was Nathan Green but most folks just called him Nearest. This is the story of the man history almost forgot and the drink you’ll be sipping when you tell his tale.

The story begins with a preacher who owned a farm in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Outside the pulpit, the Right Reverend Daniel Call was best known for a still that made silky-smooth, maple-tasting whiskey. As his distiller, Uncle Nearest perfected a technique of filtering whiskey through sugar-maple charcoal the way his ancestors filtered water back home in West Africa. Known as the Lincoln County Process, it’s still the required method for any spirit claiming to be ‘Tennessee whiskey.’

In the mid-1800s Reverend Call hired a seven-year-old orphan to do chores around the farm. Soon Jasper Daniel began working at the distillery where Uncle Nearest showed him the ropes. He loved his job, and thanks to being a natural-born salesman, eventually sold whiskey throughout the South.

Then came December 6, 1865, the day the 13th Amendment was passed and Nearest became a free man. 

About this time the Lutheran minister was given an ultimatum by his congregation and wife: Walk away from whiskey or walk away from church. And so he sold the still to Jasper who immediately hired Nearest as his distiller. However, Jasper didn’t put his given name on the label, instead he used his nickname—Jack Daniel.

If it weren’t for a picture and a bit of luck, this is where Uncle Nearest’s story would have ended.

Pulling As We Climb

Nearest retired in 1884 and for over a century few knew his legacy. Then one day, almost 150 years later, Fawn Weaver, an author and entrepreneur, was flipping through the New York Times when a photo caught her eye.

“The photo showed Jack Daniel surrounded by his entire team, who were all white,” she says, “but in the center was a black man, George Green, son of Nearest Green. That’s how we came to know the story, that and a newspaper headline that read, ‘Jack Daniel embraces a secret ingredient, help from a slave.”

Fawn spent weeks in Lynchburg unearthing the story. She gathered more than 100,000 documents, many from Nearest’s descendants.

“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,” Fawn said. “The only way the story was actually going to hold up in the history books was if it was proven, not just speculated about.”

So, she gathered archivists, archeologists, genealogists, and historians to research the claim.

“Not a single person ever billed me,” she said. “People were drawn to the story, as I was, for the same reason. There was this level of hope that said we as Americans, black and white, know how to fix this—because Jack and Uncle Nearest did it right.”

When the story came to light, Mark McCallum, a former executive with Jack Daniel’s Brands at Brown-Forman, spent hours with Fawn pouring over her findings. After their meeting, it was decided Nearest would feature front-and-center in the brand’s history. He was declared the distillery’s original master distiller, making Jack Daniel second in line.

Thanks to Fawn’s curiosity and hard work, Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey is now known around the world and enjoyed by many. 

When Robert Perkins, a member of Bourbon Society of Central Florida and Black Bourbon Society, discovered whiskey he was intimidated. He believed the spirit didn’t cater to people of color—until he heard the story of Uncle Nearest.

“At first I thought it was a gimmick,” Robert said, “an attempt to garner awards. But the whiskey stands up to the test.”

Robert recently toured the distillery, where he fell in love with the 1856 Premium Whiskey and the story behind the brand. 

“There’s this sense of pride for people like me,” he said. “Many see whiskey as a gentlemen’s drink, enjoyed by Southern white guys. It’s important those stereotypes are broken. This is something everyone can enjoy.”

Indeed, many are drinking it up. Uncle Nearest is the fastest-growing American whiskey brand ever. It’s the most successful black-owned distillery in the world and has been named the most-awarded whiskey and bourbon brand three years in a row: 2019, 2020, and 2021.

That’s thanks to Victoria Eady Butler, master blender and Nearest’s great-great-grandaughter. 

She began her whiskey career at Jack Daniel’s where according to her, “there’s never been any whiskey made without a Green on property.” 

As the Uncle Nearest brand began to form, she was a key member of the all-female leadership team. Two months after being hired, Victoria blended the label’s first small-batch release: 1884. In 2021, she was the Master Blender of the Year at VinePair’s Next Wave awards.

“The success of Uncle Nearest is not only significant for Black History, but also for history-in-the-making,” Fawn says. “Honoring our past is crucial, while ensuring that the progress we make today validates our ancestor’s struggles and sacrifices. It’s amazing that one of the most successful American exports traces its roots back to a relationship of mentorship between an enslaved man and a young, white orphan.”

But it’s not enough that Uncle Nearest Whiskey succeeds. The company also champions the achievement of all people of color through initiatives such as the Nearest and Jack Advancement Initiative, the Nearest Green Foundation, and the Nearest Green Legacy Scholarship program, which awards fully-paid scholarships to his descendants.

“Each person of color we uplift thought this program is a testament to Nearest’s and Jack’s enduring legacies,” Fawn says. “We are drawing on the lessons of their lives to empower others, practicing ‘pulling as we climb’ in their honor.”