During the most oppressive and racially divided era in our nation’s history, an unlikely friendship was born that gave way to the creation of one of America’s best known brands – Jack Daniel’s whiskey.
A young Jack Daniel, orphaned at the age of 16, went to work as a chore boy for a preacher and distillery owner in his hometown of Lynchburg, Tennessee in the early 1800s.
It was there that he met a slave named Nathan Green, known better as Nearest. After being sold and sent to Tennessee from Maryland, he was rented out to a preacher, Dan Call, for the price of $50 to work as a distiller. He later became one of the wealthiest and highest regarded African-American men in Tennessee, and the first master distiller of Jack Daniel’s whiskey.
Over the years, Nearest became Jack’s mentor and teacher. He showed him the methods he had painstakingly perfected of charcoal mellowing, the signature of all Tennessee whiskey, which became the process for brewing the famous Jack Daniel’s product.
Nearest’s name, however, was missing from the story of Jack Daniel’s. Despite it being widespread knowledge among the Green and Daniel families that remain in the small community of Lynchburg, it had disappeared from the nation’s collective memory and from the company’s own telling of the Jack Daniel’s story.
One author and researcher has made it her mission to change that. Fawn Weaver has begun to piece together the life story of Nearest Green after spending months living in Lynchburg and eventually purchasing Dan Call’s farm where Jack and Nearest met more than 150 years ago.
With a half-million dollar investment to fund the creation of his own whiskey brand, Uncle Nearest 1856, and the establishment of a scholarship fund to send Nearest’s ancestors to college, Fawn hopes that the name Nearest Green and his legacy can finally be immortalized.
When Fawn Weaver first read about Nearest Green, she felt it was a story she was destined to tell.
‘I’ve never done anything like this in my life, and I almost feel more chosen than as if I chose it,’ the 41-year-old African-American author told the DailyMail.com.
Mrs Weaver shares a birthday with Jack Daniel – September 5th. Though the exact date of Jack’s birth is disputed among historians, it is the day most commonly celebrated.
She, like many others, was shocked by a New York Times article in June 2016 that first revealed the whiskey company’s slave history that was never openly discussed, despite being widely known among the community in Jack Daniel’s home in Lynchburg.
The story previously told was that Dan Call had taught his young apprentice Jack Daniel, how to run his Tennessee distillery.
Hoping to learn more about Nearest Green, Mrs Weaver bought the first biography written on the whiskey distiller: Jack Daniel’s Legacy. As she read, she was immediately struck by how frequently Nearest and his sons were mentioned in the book, which was published in 1967.
‘Uncle Nearest is the best whiskey maker that I know of,’ Call is recorded as having said.
She began to dig deeper, and found an article written in a local Tennessee paper in 1974 that listed Nearest Green as the first master distiller at Jack Daniel’s.
But when Mrs Weaver visited the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, there was no mention of Nearest during the facility’s tour. She went on the tour once more, and then again, just to be certain. Still Nearest’s name or influence weren’t discussed.
How, she wondered, had this story gotten lost in the passage of time? Why wasn’t it being taught as common knowledge to the public, despite being understood for generations among the people it involved?
‘To this day I don’t know how Nearest ended up being hidden. I really don’t,’ she said. ‘Because when Jack was alive he never hid him. When Jack’s descendants ran the distillery, they never hid who he was or what he did. The relationship between Jack’s descendants and Nearest’s descendants were one that was rare between blacks and whites. They would’ve stood out. In Lynchburg, they always knew.’
She decided to travel to Lynchburg – a town of about 6,000 people today, and was immediately confronted with the legacy of not Jack Daniel – but Nearest Green.
While getting a pedicure, she asked a woman working there what the reaction in the community had been when the New York Times article went viral.
‘She looked at me with this very blank face and said: “We’ve always known. It was no big deal”.’
The mission to tell Nearest’s story became a near obsession for Fawn, even driving her to purchase the farmland that once belonged to Dan Call to serve as a home base for her project.
After spending months poring over more than 10,000 historical documents and connecting with nearly 100 of Nearest’s remaining family members from across the nation – Fawn has pieced together what she can of Nearest Green’s life in her ‘research room’.
With peeling floral wallpaper and creaking floorboards, it sits in the farm house where the original distillery for Jack Daniel’s whiskey was built nearly 200 years ago.
When Jack met Nearest, the two took on what Mrs Weaver believes to be a relationship of mentorship and mutual respect.
‘When you consider a young man who has no parents, you’re going to gravitate to successful adults no matter what. Nearest, as odd as it may sound and seem to many, right after the Civil War was one of the wealthiest African Americans in Lynchburg and in the surrounding areas.
‘More importantly, he had a greater personal wealth than many of the white people who lived there. Nearest was highly regarded and highly compensated for his skill set,’ she continued.
Fawn mused on what their friendship might have looked like to others in Tennessee during the height of the Civil War.
With a booming laugh, she said: ‘You have to think about how interesting this must’ve looked, these two men going through town. Nearest, who I’m guessing was somewhere around 6 feet if not taller, and Jack, who was five foot two. The sight of that spectacle walking through town had to just be so interesting.’
She believes that Jack Daniel was a genius businessman, despite his lack of formal education.
‘I think Jack would’ve succeeded at anything he put his mind to. However, for this particular whiskey, I do believe that the relationship between Jack’s family and Nearest’s family is what truly propelled it to greatness,’ she continued.
Thus began a relationship that survived generations to come – and served as the base of a company that now nets approximately $3billion in annual revenue.
Fawn’s research found her traveling to Tennessee, Washington DC and Georgia to scour their public records, and gradually she began to compose the first comprehensive timeline of Nearest Green’s life.
In the Tennessee state census, Nathan Green is listed as originally hailing from Maryland. His name is printed in the center of the page as the only name denoted as a Maryland transplant to Tennessee. It was first reported that his name was ‘Nearis’ – a misinterpretation of his common nickname of Nearest.
From the census data, Mrs Weaver surmised that this reveals some understanding of Nearest’s life before he came to the Call farm.
‘It is very likely that he at least recalled where he began, meaning he wasn’t sold as an infant,’ she said.
At the time, the slave trade route from Maryland to Tennessee wasn’t uncommon. However, if Nearest came to Maryland with any family, records of them disappeared when he arrived in Lynchburg.
The Green surname likely came from the ‘slave rental’ group that owned him at that time, Landis & Green, who sold him to the Call farm for his well-known skills as a distiller.
‘Usually $50 is that fee that they would charge,’ Mrs Weaver continued. ‘If there was a slave that was incredibly skilled in a particular area they would be rented to owners in those industries.
‘My guess was Nearest was a really skilled distiller before he ever made it to the Call farm.’
Little is known about the time frame in which Nearest arrived at the farm, how long he stayed there, or how old he was while he worked for Dan Call.
Mrs Weaver said a complicating factor in her research has been the absence of records, given that on paper, slaves had no roots in America.
‘I imagine he had siblings, I imagine he did not come into Tennessee on his own. But sometime between Maryland and Tennessee he no longer has any family,’ Mrs Weaver said.
However, it is known that Nearest went on to have 11 children, who became very close with Jack Daniel and his family in Lynchburg. Even to this day, the descendants of Nearest Green and those of Jack Daniel have a relationship of mutual solidarity – and have worked together with Mrs Weaver to compose the Green family tree and push Nearest’s story into the limelight.
It seemed that the community jumped at the opportunity to share the history they were proud to uphold; one of divided races working together. Even the eldest of ancestors wanted to impart any pieces of oral history they could share that could be of help to Fawn’s research. Nearest Green’s oldest living relative, Mrs Weaver said, just turned 107 – and played a crucial part in providing details that strung the family’s history together.
Strangely, Mrs Weaver noted, most of the information that led to breakthroughs in her research came from members of the community who were white.
‘This is not a scenario where people ran and hid,’ Mrs Weaver said. ‘They all led me, black and white alike – most of the people who live in Lynchburg, by the way, are white – to get to truly tell this story. To see Nearest’s legacy I had to rely equally on whites and blacks.’
She believes this may have been because Nearest was so wealthy, he lived among significantly more white people than black people in the town.
‘There was not a black person within miles of him and Lynchburg was not that big,’ she said.
However, this wasn’t a distinction that would’ve made any difference to his neighbors, most of whom were relatives of Jack Daniel.
‘His family was fully integrated after the Civil War. Jack and his family did not see a difference between Nearest and his family and their own,’ Mrs Weaver said.
‘That wasn’t just when Nearest was alive – that was with his kids, his kids’ kids. This is not your typical story,’ she continued.
The relationship between Nearest and Jack was, Fawn believes, one of a unique and beautiful pairing that superseded the racial tensions of the time – and continues to do so today.
It is due to race relations that Jack Daniel’s Company claims they decided ultimately not to pursue their widespread recognition of Nearest Green during their 150th celebration of ‘Master Distillers’. The company’s president Mark McCallum told the New York Times: ‘I thought we would be accused of making a big deal about it for commercial gain.’
Mr McCallum subsequently cancelled his interview with DailyMail.com. Instead, a representative for the company issued a statement on his behalf which read: ‘We will continue to honor and recognize Nearest Green’s unique role in our heritage, and will thoughtfully and respectfully look for ways to honor his legacy. We appreciate everything the Weavers are doing in this regard as well. Our primary ambition is to do all that should be done to honor the memory and role of Nearest Green and, therefore, we recognize any activity that supports this ultimate goal as worthy.
Following a six-hour long conversation with Mrs Weaver, the company has integrated discussion about Nearest into their five distillery tours.
Brown-Forman, the umbrella company acting as the main representative body for Jack Daniel’s, also made a major change after Mrs Weaver’s research came to light. In May of 2017, they decided to list Nearest Green as the first master distiller of Jack Daniel’s whiskey, and is now listed as such on their website homepage – knocking Jack Daniel himself down to the second spot.
‘When I presented them with the proof of who Nearest was and what he did, I give them an enormous amount of credit for moving immediately to set the record straight,’ Mrs Weaver said.
What began as an initial interest transformed into an obsession for Fawn Weaver, and now, she believes, it is her calling to tell Nearest’s story to its fullest extent. In the process of doing so, she’s found that she’s become a part of the Green family – after working to bring so many of them together in their shared history that they previously had no knowledge of.
‘It’s a lot to juggle. This story, this change in history, this family. That are all raised differently – there are different branches of the family that didn’t know eachother. So I’m bringing them all together and they’re learning about their own history at the same time that I am. That’s a lot,’ she said.
Every day, Mrs Weaver is in contact with at least one of Nearest’s ancestors. They are spread all over the country, from Indianapolis to St Louis to Nashville, in many locations that are associated with Jack Daniel’s distilleries.
‘My focus is on what matters to the descendants most – how do I make them most proud, and in the process, how do we ensure that we are doing enough things related to the name of Nathan Nearest Green that the name is never again erased from history?’ she said.
The only remaining family members who still have the Green name mostly reside in Nashville. They met with Mrs Weaver there, at a church, to discuss what could be done to cement the memory of Nearest and his role in helping to create Jack Daniel’s whiskey.
The idea they settled on wouldn’t be easy or cheap, but it was what they collectively felt would be the best way to project his name into the modern world.
They wanted to create a bottle of whiskey named after their ancestor.
Mrs Weaver immediately set to work putting the wheels in motion to make it happen. She connected with one of Jack Daniel’s descendants, who had continued to work in the whiskey industry for three decades, who pledged to help them make the bottle for Nearest Green’s whiskey.
‘Family members were a part of helping us to raise the money and make sure that not only a bottle comes out, but it’s done in such excellence that it doesn’t then go away,’ Mrs Weaver said.
‘We’ve had the problem of things relating to Nearest going away!’ she laughed.
The group decided on the name of Uncle Nearest 1856 for the whiskey’s brand. The name Uncle Nearest comes from a longstanding tradition in the south of referring to teachers, mentors or others close to a family as ‘uncle, aunt or cousin’ out of respect.
‘If you are in Lynchburg, everyone calls eachother uncle, aunt, cousin so and so, whether you’re black or white,’ Mrs Weaver said. The Green family all refers to her as ‘Cousin Fawn,’ she said – and they frequently remind her that she too is family.
‘When we were looking at this and going “how do we get across that he was a mentor, he was a teacher; he was that person who everyone knew had the expertise?” We don’t want to call him mister, that seems way too cliché – so it became Uncle Nearest.’
They chose the year 1856 to add to the title because it’s the year they believe he helped perfect the Lincoln County process – a special type of charcoal mellowing filtration named after the county he lived in that makes Tennessee whiskey unique from any other kind in the world.
The whiskey, which characterizes its taste as ‘bold and spicy upfront then mellows with sweet caramel and maple, like biting into an oatmeal raisin cookie,’ has been flying off the shelves. It is available at 70 stores in the Nashville area, but ships across the country to 46 states.
‘It’s not just African-Americans who are going into the store and buying this, it’s everyone. People want to be a part of cementing this man’s history – which is absolutely unbelievable,’ Mrs Weaver said.
The process of first creating and continuing to produce a whiskey bottle is expensive, so Fawn continues to focus her energy on fundraising. She and her husband Keith, an executive vice president at Sony Pictures, are based in Los Angles – so she has looked to the Hollywood crowd in the hopes of finding donors to keep Uncle Nearest 1856 going.