By Andre Jones
Typically, when people think of distilled spirits such as Jack Daniels whiskey, a Black face is the last thing to come to mind, but what many don’t know is that a Black face is directly responsible for the success of Jack Daniels whiskey.
Even though Jack Daniel’s Whiskey bears the name of its founder, Jasper Newton “Jack’ Daniel, it has become public knowledge that the Jack Daniels whiskey company owes its success, in large part, to Daniel’s training by former slave Nathan “Uncle Nearest” Green.
The New York Times broke the story last year in honor of Jack Daniel’s 150th anniversary, telling readers how the 275,000 people that tour the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee usually hear the story of how Daniel went to work for a preacher, grocer, and distiller by the name of Dan Call in 1850, with Call teaching him how to run his still – the rest being history.
However, the real story – while not being so neat and linear – is typical of American life during slavery. Daniel’s formidable knowledge of distilling techniques were actually taught to him by Green, who was one of Call’s slaves at the time. While the story was never what you would consider a secret, the distillery is only recently starting to insert the truth of it into its tours.
“It’s taken something like the anniversary for us to start to talk about ourselves,” said Nelson Eddy, Jack Daniel’s in-house historian. The accepted historical perspective regarding American whiskey production has, like many other accepted perspectives, been largely white centered, when in reality, slavery and distillery went hand in hand, with slaves very often making up the majority of the distilling labor force. George Washington himself relied on six slaves to run his rye whiskey distillery, which was then one of the largest on the East Coast. He even listed the slaves in his ledger – not as slaves – but distillers.
Relationship author Fawn Weaver announced her plans to launch a series of projects aimed at honoring Mr. Green. “I liked the story of Jack Daniel, but Nearest Green’s story and the community at large really stayed with me,” Weaver said in a statement. She interviewed over 100 people, according to Atlanta Black Star, including descendants of Jack Daniel, Green’s 106-year-old granddaughter and other members of the Green family who continue the tradition of working for Jack Daniel’s to this day.
“When Fawn contacted us, we were excited to hear that someone was bringing to light all of this information about our family,” said Mitchell Green, Uncle Nearest’s great grandson. “Until now, only our family and a small community were aware of the impact our ancestor had on the Tennessee whiskey industry.”