The opportunity to honor one’s heritage does not present itself often enough. But when that moment occurred in Victoria Butler’s life, she embraced it with pride and purpose. Today, she is the first African American master blender in the history of the American spirits industry, following in the footsteps of her great-great-grandfather, Nathan “Nearest” Green. Green is the first African American master distiller on record credited with teaching Jack Daniel (yes, of the Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey fame) how to make one of the world’s most favored spirits. Now, Green and his contributions to the spirits industry are celebrated at Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, with Butler playing a pivotal role in the future of her family’s legacy.
Leading a “Best of” Brand
Promoted to the position of master blender last fall, Butler was previously the director of administration, a hat she still wears. She curated the 1884 small batch that was launched last July, “which has quickly grown to become one of our really good expressions,” she shares. “It’s been well received by the whiskey industry.” Uncle Nearest is the most awarded new American premium whiskey brand in United States history. It has won 75 awards since its July 2017 debut, including being one of two brands named “World’s Best” at Whisky Magazine’s 2019 World Whiskies Awards.
The product offerings here are premium aged whiskeys that include an 8- to 14-year-old blend, an 11-year-old minimum age single barrel and a 7-year-old small batch offering. All are distilled, aged, bottled and hand-labeled in Tennessee. Uncle Nearest is available in all 50 states in the U.S. and 12 countries. Unique to the brand is the technique of filtering bourbon through sugar maple charcoal as well as using its non-temperature-controlled aging process and unique post-aging double filtration method.
Creating the Foundation
Butler, however, is not the founder of the company. Uncle Nearest was cofounded by author and entrepreneur Fawn Weaver, the primary driving force in ensuring this story of lost history is championed. Weaver happened to read about Green in a New York Times article in 2016 and decided to learn more. As they say, one thing led to another and she launched the Uncle Nearest brand in 2017. By 2018, the accolades were flowing and 2019 saw the opening of the Nearest Green Distillery in Shelbyville, Tenn. In reaching out to the family to ensure Green’s work was recognized, she met Butler, Green’s great-great-granddaughter, and the two women have been making history from the get-go. “We have a love for the work that we do, to ensure that Nearest Green’s name is cemented in history,” says Butler.
Both Weaver and Butler have earned recognition aplenty as they forge ahead in success. “I have come to accept, believe and know that whiskey really is in my blood,” Butler says. Coming from 31 years of service in federal law enforcement and going on next to making whiskey, her current position as a master blender, earned within a year’s time of joining the company, speaks volumes of her natural talent. Though Butler was previously a whiskey enthusiast, she never imagined she’d be working in the industry. “I’m excited about what I’m doing and absolutely love it. It has been the most phenomenal year ever,” she shares.
Butler also attributes some of her newfound passion to Weaver. “I am very grateful to Fawn for reaching out to me and getting me involved in this. It is indescribable really to have the opportunity to carry on your family’s legacy. Not very many people have the opportunity to walk in their great-great-grandfather’s shadow and continue the legacy he started more than 160 years ago, I am honored.”
Priming What’s Ahead
Butler assures all work progresses onsite at the 270-acre premises of Nearest Green Distillery. Even the sale of whiskey hasn’t slowed due to COVID-19. The venue opened doors to the public in September 2019 as part of a phased construction plan. Weekend tours held here, two on Saturday and one on Sunday, were sold out until the coronavirus pandemic hit. In the works now are a single-barrel warehouse and tasting room and a Heritage Hall celebrating everything Tennessee, from its walking horses and country music to NASCAR and whiskey.
Meanwhile, during the pandemic, there has also been a production of hand sanitizers, not for sale but for donations to frontline workers, hospitals and areas heavily affected, as well as donating masks across the country. “We spent a lot of money ensuring that we are part of the solution in trying to ensure that people are safe. I love that we are not just about making whiskey, that we are truly about being a service to mankind.”
Of course, conversations tend to eventually arrive at the topic of the relationship with the team at the Jack Daniel Distillery located a few miles away. “We share a history. One can’t really be told without the other,” says Butler. “What Jack Daniel and Nearest Green shared was unique, at a time when a White man wasn’t friends with a Black man, who was once a slave and then a free man.” As is common with the whiskey industry overall, Butler observes that everyone has been welcoming and eager to share their wisdom and expertise with her.
“I will continue to share the story of Nearest Green, and to oversee, if not curate, the 1884 and all of our blends at the distillery as the master blender,” shares Butler, when quizzed on future plans. “I know that’s enough to keep me busy for years to come. I am honored to continue the legacy of Nearest Green.”