‘Father, husband, mentor, the greatest whisky maker the world never knew’ reads Nathan ‘Nearest’ Green’s headstone at Highview Cemetery, in Lynchburg, Tennessee. A short stroll over to the neighbouring cemetery and you’ll find the resting place of one of the most famous whisky makers in the world, his headstone bare, besides his name, and the much-disputed dates of his birth and death – Jack Daniel, 1850-1911.
It’s a stark juxtaposition: to the unassuming eye, Daniel’s grave could easily go unnoticed (although two white cast-iron seats flank it either side), while standing arch-like with a large central urn, it’s hard to miss Green’s, despite the two men’s differing statures in the American whiskey record books. Yet it says a lot about what connects Green and Daniel.
Over a week earlier this year, I learnt about their improbable bond via the people who now spread the word of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey (with palpable reverence and, at times, tears in their eyes). It’s a now well-documented story in American whiskey circles. After years of Daniel being considered the father of Tennessee whiskey, in the last decade, it’s been pieced together that in fact, an enslaved black man, Nearest (often misrecorded as ‘Nearis’) Green taught him how to make whiskey.
They met on Call Farm in Lynchburg where a young Daniel was living and Green was working as a slave under its owner, Lutheran preacher Dan Call. Call had a still and, with spirit-making not becoming of a religious man, charged Green with running it and teaching his ways to Daniel. It’s also thought that Green may have been at the forefront of the Lincoln County Process, a production method specific to Tennessee whiskey where maple charcoal chips are used to filter whiskey before it goes into cask for ageing.
When Daniel opened his own distillery, he hired descendants of Green and, over a century later, members of the Green family still work at the Jack Daniel distillery. But with the appointment of Green’s great-great-granddaughter (a retired employee of the Department of Justice with no prior whiskey experience) as Uncle Nearest’s master blender, the tide is undoubtedly turning.
It’s all been orchestrated under the undeniable force of entrepreneur and Uncle Nearest CEO Fawn Weaver. She read about the story of Green in a 2016 New York Times article and, spurred on by the story of how a slave played such an uncelebrated yet pivotal role in the history of American whiskey, set about gathering over 10,000 artefacts alongside journalists and archivists to bring Green’s story into the public realm. She based herself in Lynchburg in 2016, began outreach to members of Green’s family and set about paying homage to Green’s forgotten legacy.
Of course, the obvious way to pay that homage was through a distillery, and the team launched its ‘super premium’ whiskey and broke ground on a 432-acre property in Shelbyville in 2017. Its whiskies (made through partner distillers and blended inhouse) have won mountains of accolades and claims such as ‘most-awarded’ and ‘fastest-growing’ are never far when it comes to the brand’s marketing (indeed, its 1856 Premium Aged, 1884 Small Batch, Batch 017 Master Blend and Batch 208 Single Barrel have all won medals at the IWSC).
Investment in the future of the distillery was clear to see on our visit. As we toured the new facilities at the beautifully appointed visitor centre and in the grounds, we saw a glimpse of some shiny new stills which should be operational by the end of the year, with bottling mooted for 2027. However, the team will continue distilling with their partners as demand already outweighs the capacity of the new equipment.
This year also saw the property expand to a whopping 745 acres with the purchase of another property on Eady Road, making it one of the, if not the, largest black-owned properties in Tennessee, with aspirations of hosting nearly 500,000 visitors over the next year.
And then there’s Humble Baron, the distillery’s onsite bar, which was opened in March this year and is – according to Guinness World Records – the longest in the world at 518ft long. It’s been designed so that it can be extended, just in case anyone tries to beat the record. Local drinking laws are also reminiscent of Prohibition times, so with somewhere licensed to drink (with 200 seats, 17 stations and a menu designed by Death & Co), it has no doubt given the local community a new home.
But Weaver’s sights are on more than just whiskey. As well as cementing the legacy of a black man in the story of American whiskey and appointing the first ever known black woman master blender, she has set her sights on the legacies of Green’s family too. In 2017, she established the Nearest Green Foundation (overseen by Eady Butler), a non-profit that was set up to help descendants of Green gain university scholarships – some of them have even gone on to work for the whiskey brand. In 2021, she also launched the $50m Uncle Nearest Venture Fund, investing in minority-owned and founded spirit brands – the first to receive backing being Equiano Rum (founded by Ian Burrell and Aaisha Dadral) and Jack From Brooklyn, launched by Jackie Summers. And in October 2023, Uncle Nearest began another new chapter with the announcement that it had acquired Domaine Saint Martin in Cognac, a 100-acre estate on the Charente River.
Shortly after my visit, Weaver was heading on what she calls a ‘CEO Thank You Tour’, visiting 50 military bases around the US to thank the military for their services and host a series of Uncle Nearest happy hours to raise a glass to the armed forces. On the road for four months, it’s a huge undertaking and Weaver kicked it off by training with the troops at Fort Knox. It’s a clear sign of her determination, drive and dynamism, all of which have catapulted the name Nearest Green into the American whiskey stratosphere.