Everything You Need To Know About Uncle Nearest, America's First Black Master Distiller

American whiskey would be a different place without Nathan “Uncle Nearest” Green. Though commonly referred to as America’s first black master distiller, his impact is far greater. He taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey and was one of the architects of the Lincoln County Process, which most Tennessee whiskeys use to this day. Despite playing a vital role in one of the world’s biggest liquor brands, his contributions weren’t publicly acknowledged until recently.

 

Early Life and Introduction to Distilling

Many of the details of Nathan Green’s life remain unknown. There are no photographs of him, nor is his exact birthdate known, though we know he was born about 1820 in Maryland. When he met Jack Daniel, Green was a slave. He was owned by the company Landis & Green, who leased him out to the Reverend Daniel Call, a Lutheran preacher and distiller in Lynchburg, Tennessee. Nearest was his nickname, which was misspelled "Nearis" on an 1880 census.

Following the end of the Civil War, Green continued to work for Call as a free man, thanks to the Emancipation Proclamation. Daniel eventually took over the distillery and appointed Green to head distiller. Two of Green’s sons also worked at the distillery and his descendents continue to work for Jack Daniel’s to this day. An often-seen photo, which hung in Jack Daniel's office, shows Daniel sitting next to a black distillery worker. Erroneously, this man was thought to be Nathan Green but, according to the Jack Daniel’s website, it's likely his son, George Green.

The Lincoln County Process

One of Green's most significant contributions to distillation was his refinement of the Lincoln County Process, a unique method of filtering whiskey through charcoaled maple wood before aging. This technique, imparts a distinct softness and flavor profile to the whiskey, and is considered a defining characteristic of Tennessee whiskey. Green’s mastery of this process set the standard for the industry, and it remains a hallmark of Tennessee whiskeys to this day.

It's believed by some food historians that the Lincoln County Process is actually African in origin, brought to America by enslaved men and women. It's common in west Africa to use charcoal to filter and purify water and foods, and the region has its own tradition of spirits production. According to the Nearest Green Foundation, Jack Daniel’s nephews believed this hypothesis and spoke about it in newspapers while in charge of the brand.

Mentorship of Jack Daniel

Jasper “Jack” Daniel was born in 1849 and was orphaned as a boy. He was taken in by Rev. Call around the age of 10 and began working at his distillery, where Green worked as slave labor. The 1967 biography Jack Daniel’s Legacy claims Call tasked Green with teaching Daniel everything he knew about distilling, saying, “Uncle Nearest is the best whiskey maker that I know of.” Green and his children are mentioned numerous times throughout the book.

Jack Daniel's historian Nelson Eddy told Fox News that Daniel and Green were more than co-workers, they were friends. Green played fiddle and is credited by some for having encouraged Daniel’s love of music. Nathan Green died around 1890. His gravesite remains unknown. Jack Daniel would later leave the company to his nephew, Lem Motlow, and died in 1911 at the age of 62.

Nathan Green Finally Gets His Due

Though an open secret around Lynchburg, Tennessee, Nathan Green's contributions to the Jack Daniel’s brand were obscured for over a century. The official company line was that Jack Daniel learned about whiskey making from Dan Call. That changed in 2016, when parent company Brown-Forman publicly acknowledged Green’s role in helping launch Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey and his story is now featured in tours of the Jack Daniel's Distillery. In 2021, Barrel House 114 at the distillery was renamed the “George Green Barrel House” in honor of Nathan Green’s son and the extended Green family.

Inspired by The New York Times Story “Jack Daniel’s Embraces a Hidden Ingredient: Help From a Slave,” author Fawn Weaver founded the Nearest Green Foundation, and the Uncle Nearest whiskey brand. The organization honors Green’s legacy and brings his story to light. It reissued Jack Daniel’s Legacy, which prominently features the Green family, and created a college scholarship for his descendants.

Uncle Nearest Whiskey

In 2017, Fawn Weaver founded Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey. The first brand named after an African-American. It quickly became one of the fastest growing whiskeys in the country and is the best-selling black owned spirit brand in history, according to The Tennessean newspaper. The Nearest Green Distillery was opened in 2019 in Shelbyville, Tennessee, and the brand currently offers several different expressions, including Uncle Nearest 1884 Small Batch whiskey, Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Aged whiskey, and Uncle Nearest Rye.

A notable aspect of Uncle Nearest whiskey is the involvement of Victoria Eady Butler, Nathan Green’s great-great-granddaughter. Butler serves as the brand’s Master Blender, making history as the first black female master blender in American whiskey. Under her guidance, Uncle Nearest has received numerous awards and accolades.

The Legacy Of Nathan Green

In 2019, the Tennessee General Assembly officially recognized Nathan Green as the first African-American Master Distiller. Once nearly forgotten, his story highlights the overlooked contributions of black Americans to the history and culture of American whiskey.

 Photographs courtesy of Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey, Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, and Pierre Auguste. 



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