Uncle Nearest: creating a legacy

28 April, 2023

The uncovering of a family history has led to one of the biggest success stories in American whiskey history.

Whiskey and storytelling go hand in hand. For better or worse it’s been a muse to some of literature’s most enduring ­ figures – Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, Haruki Murakami and Charles Bukowski have all professed their love for it. So, of course, brands have learnt to spin a good yarn over the years, and as far as stories go, Uncle Nearest has a pretty great one.

The brand is named for Nathan ‘Nearest’ Green, a formerly enslaved man who taught a young Jack Daniel how to distil whiskey when both worked on the farm of a preacher and distiller named Dan Call. Green would become the master distiller at Jack Daniel’s for the ­first six years of the distillery’s operation. The man’s signi­ficance to whiskey could’ve been all but lost to myth if it wasn’t for a 2016 New York Times article by Clay Risen, which uncovered his story and led with a photo of Daniel sitting posed to the left of a black man, who we now know to be Green’s son, George.

It was this image that entrepreneur and author Fawn Weaver saw in Singapore on the cover of The New York Times International, and what began as the potential inspiration for a love story became an exhaustive research project into Green’s legacy and, eventually, Uncle Nearest whiskey.

“I wanted to trace Nearest’s descendants, so I put ads in the newspaper every Friday saying that I was looking into four last names – Green, Waggoner, Daniel, Call – asking for any kind of information or documents that people had in a basement or an attic about these family names,” recalls Weaver. “I ended up with over 10,000 artefacts from six different states.”

During the research, and through conversations with the family, Weaver’s focus shifted to the idea of producing a whiskey to honour Nearest and to involve his descendants.

“The initial idea was that a different descendent would blend each batch, and we would surround them with our experts who would help them choose the flavour pro­file that they like,” says Weaver.

“It wasn’t just marketing, I wanted them to have their own signatures on it so they would feel part of it. As black people in bourbon, it had never happened before. Blending had always been done by white men.”

Nearest Green Foundation

It was through this concept that Victoria Eady Butler, the great-great-granddaughter of Nearest Green, came to be the first known African-American master whiskey blender.

“When Victoria came in, it wasn’t as a blender, it was to oversee the Nearest Green Foundation,” explains Weaver. “She would be responsible for making sure we got as many of the Green descendants to college as possible, which meant making sure that their parents knew the college tuition is paid for. But I asked her to do the very ­first blend. I was there for that ­first blending, Victoria was surrounded by very experienced people and we were going through, tasting the samples. She had never done this before but she knew exactly what her palate wanted.

“So, we took her samples, blended them, and it was really good. We bottled it, sent it out and started winning awards. The 5,000 cases we made of Victoria’s ­first blend sold out so fast that we didn’t have time to get new labels made for her cousin to do the second blend, so Victoria did the second round too, and everyone who tasted it said it’s the best thing we’d ever produced. Whiskey is in her blood.”

As Butler explains: “When Fawn arrived in Tennessee in 2016, she started meeting the Green descendants. I was one of the last to meet her. I’d never done anything in whiskey, but there’s a beautiful thing about saying yes. I’d never blended and had no desire to before but when Fawn asked, there was no hesitation.”

Butler has given the brand something priceless, a direct connection to Nearest Green that goes deeper than name and location. Now, with heritage established, the brand is in the business of creating legacy.

Garnering plaudits

Last year, Uncle Nearest passed $100m in sales and Weaver predicts that this year will see it pass 400,000 cases. In the short time since launching, Uncle Nearest has become the fastest-growing American whiskey brand in history and the most successful black-owned distillery in the world.

In 2018, work began to renovate a 270-acre former horse farm in Shelbyville into the Nearest Green Distillery. At present, the site is home to a bottling house, single barrel warehouse, and visitor centre, with plans in place for a still house to launch by the end of the year.

Ultimately, the site will house all brand operations, becoming a central point on the Tennessee whiskey map, just half an hour up the road from Jack Daniel’s Lynchburg home. But the process is an expensive and painstaking one, as Weaver reveals: “It would’ve been a fraction of the cost to raze every building and start from scratch, but we kept intact every single building and converted them into the distillery.”

But beyond whiskey production, the brand wanted to create a landmark for the community and in March opened its on-site bar and live music venue Humble Baron, equipped with a 518ft-long bar, the longest in the world.

The cocktail menu and bar itself were designed with the help of Death & Co and, according to the brand, its opening weekend saw 8,000 guests through the door.

“Drinks by the glass are not allowed in our county at all, but the senator passed a bill that allows them to be sold in one place – the Nearest Green distillery,” says Weaver.

“We want people from Shelbyville to have pride in Nearest Green Distillery. I saw what Jack Daniel’s was to Lynchburg, and I wanted that in Shelbyville for Uncle Nearest. We’re six years on and Shelbyville feels like this brand is its brand, that Nearest Green Distillery is truly homegrown.”

Uncle Nearest has one of whiskey’s great stories. With Butler and Weaver the brand continues to make history within the American whiskey category and for black-owned businesses in the spirits world.

Shelbyville appears to be the last piece of the puzzle, a place for this new brand with an old story to build a home.

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