This is the story of the best whiskey maker the world never knew. He is the first African-American master distiller on record in the United States; a former slave who taught none other than industry behemoth Jack Daniel how to make Tennessee whiskey.
A Man Nicknamed Nearest
The name Nathan “Nearest” Green might not ring a bell, but an article by Clay Risen published in the New York Times June 2016 identified him as the possible hidden ingredient in the Jack Daniel’s success story.
That article piqued the interest of serial entrepreneur and New York Times bestselling author Fawn Weaver. Weaver soon undertook the Herculean task of highlighting a part of history long forgotten and is not only bringing Green’s work to the forefront but is also honoring it with the creation of Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Whiskey. The brand was launched last year and has already won the gold medal title at the New York World Wine & Spirits Competition and the top Tennessee Whiskey in the 2017 World Spirits Competition by Cigar & Spirits Magazine.
“We are growing by how fast we, as a company, can actually get to people. Everywhere our sales staff go, they get a resounding yes,” says Weaver during an interview at the Nearest Green West Coast office in Playa Vista, Calif. “But beyond the history, the product quality is really good, it is different, and the response has been amazing.”
Uncle Nearest is a premium whiskey from Tennessee produced with local grain using the Lincoln County Process, an elevated technique that Green is known for helping to perfect more than 160 years ago. Originating in Lynchburg, the brand’s Premium Aged Whiskey (100 proof, priced $55.99) exudes light caramel, golden hues, and a long, rich finish.
The Premium Silver Whiskey (90 proof, priced $44.99), which recently launched in Tennessee and Georgia, is the only clear whiskey to utilize Uncle Nearest’s exclusive triple charcoal mellowing process, producing a smooth, pure spirit. It is also the only whiskey brand to use corn malt, per the original recipe, while most of the industry has resorted to corn for ease of use.
Uncle Nearest launches in California this month and will be available in 30 states by the end of June. London is the first international market, and future distribution plans include Japan, Canada and Australia; countries that the brand has received interest from on the interactive ‘Find a Bottle’ feature on their website.
“California is such a story-driven market, and there is an affinity for all cultures and all diversities here that we are uniquely positioned with a population that has higher discretionary income and is used to buying premium everything,” says Weaver. “Add to that the desire to be able to honor those that helped to found this country and who worked in the shadows and behind the scenes. Being able to bring those stories forward is a big deal.”
Honoring History and a Legacy
To that extent, Weaver also established the Nearest Green Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to spotlighting Green’s legacy and his journey from slavery to becoming one of the wealthiest and well-known African-Americans in the area. The foundation has twelve projects underway, including a Memorial Park in Lynchburg and its Nearest Green Legacy Scholarship program that is helping seven of his descendants through college with full-ride scholarships.
“You can’t just honor a person by putting their name on a bottle, you must also honor their legacy and lineage,” says Weaver. “There has never been a spirits company that has had such a large component that’s nonprofit, and that is inspiring other companies to do something similar.”
Work is also underway on a Nearest Green History Walk to uphold and share his forgotten legacy with the world. The future location of the Nearest Green distillery will be constructed inside what was previously a 300-foot long barn used to house horses onsite. The build-out is on a famous 270-acre historic property, Tennessee Walking Horse farm in Sand Creek. Given that the state is known for its whiskey, country music and walking horses, this is the first time all three will be brought together under one roof.
Weaver recently shared the story of the brand and its journey as the keynote speaker at the American Crafts Spirits Association convention, receiving a standing ovation from thousands of industry peers for the work her research has produced and continues to propel. “African-Americans helped to build the spirits industry overall in the U.S.,” she shares. “But especially the whiskey industry, yet not one of us has been honored ever…and ever is a long time.”