In 2016, Jack Daniel’s announced the company would make changes to its official history. They planned to honor Nathan “Nearest” Green, the African American man who taught the real Jack Daniel to make whiskey in the mid-1800s. Green had been enslaved on the farm of a preacher and distiller named Dan Call; Jack Daniel, 30 years younger than Green, was a chore boy on the same farm. It fell on Green to teach Daniel how to work the still and use a charcoal filtration process that likely originated in West Africa. (That process, charcoal mellowing, is what separates Tennessee whiskey from other types.)
The Jack Daniel's company, however, didn't realize that its announcement would cause an uproar — or that it would inspire a woman named Fawn Weaver (below) to set out on a quest to unearth Nearest Green's full story.
This week, we talk with Fawn about what drew her to this story and what she’s doing to honor Green’s legacy, with help from his great-great-granddaughter Victoria Eady Butler (below, with a guest, at the Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey distillery).
Also: earlier this year, Jack Daniel's and Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey announced they were partnering to increase diversity in the American whiskey industry; you can read more about that here.
Special thanks to our friends at the podcast Brought to you by... for their tape of the Jack Daniel's Distillery tour.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Kenny" by Hayley Briasco
- "Get Your Shoes On" by Will Van De Crommert
- "Hang Tight" by Hayley Briasco
- "Talk to Me Now (Instrumental)" by Agasthi Jayatilaka
- "Legend" by Erick Anderson
- "Comin For A Change" by Stephen Sullivan
- "Madame Prez" by Karla Dietmeyer and Olivia Diercks
- "Rooftop Instrumental" by Erick Anderson
Photos courtesy of Uncle Nearest, Jason Myers, and Stacy Preston Photography.
CLIP (TOUR GUIDE): Guys, what they are doing here only happens one to two days out of the week. Very rarely does a person actually get to see this happen.
Dan Pashman: You’re listening to a tour of the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. This tape was shared with us by the podcast Brought To You By, they recorded it before coronavirus. Under this huge metal hood, there's a giant pile of sugar maple wood and it’s on fire.
CLIP (TOUR GUIDE): It's gonna burn for an hour and a half. It’s gonna reach temperature close to 1800 degrees and when it’s done when done, it's natural lump charcoal.
Dan Pashman: That charcoal will be ground up into pea-sized pieces, then used in a process called “charcoal mellowing.”
CLIP (TOUR GUIDE): What we are going to do is drip your whiskey through the charcoal and this is what makes us a Tennessee whiskey. This is going to make your whiskey extremely smooth and this is what separates us from a bourbon.
Dan Pashman: In other words, charcoal mellowing is what makes Tennessee whiskey, Tennessee whiskey. Jack Daniel’s has been doing it this way for over 150 years, since way back in the 1860s when the real Jack Daniel made it himself.
CLIP (TOUR GUIDE): And y’all are only listening to me cause I have a can of whiskey sitting right there. [laughter]
Dan Pashman: Whiskey making in the US has long been thought of as a Scotch-Irish tradition. Jack Daniel was the most famous example of a Tennessee whiskey-maker with Scotch-Irish roots. But in 2016, The New York Times published a front-page story with the headline, “Jack Daniel’s Embraces a Hidden Ingredient: Help from a Slave.” It said that Jack Daniel’s, the brand, was finally highlighting the fact that an enslaved man named Nearest Green taught Jack Daniel to make whiskey. As part of that acknowledgment, Green’s story will become part of their distillery tour.
Dan Pashman: But Jack Daniel’s wasn’t prepared for the backlash that followed. And they had no idea that at that very moment, halfway around the world, a woman was reading that article and she would be inspired to unearth the full story of Nearest Green.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food, or in this case drink, to learn more about people. The day that New York Times story came out, Fawn Weaver read it in a hotel room in Singapore.
Fawn Weaver: The very first thing I thought was, holy crap. It’s very rare for African-Americans to be on the cover of the New York Times in any form. My second thought was, how could an African American be at the very beginning of one of the most historic American brands and we’re just now finding out about it?
Dan Pashman: Fawn is a businessperson, entrepreneur, and best-selling author of a book about relationships, she’s based in L.A. She had never heard of Nearest Green. In the days after that article ran, Fawn watched as the story of Nearest Green spread around the internet and began morphing, distorting, like in a game of telephone. Instead of “A formerly enslaved man, named Nearest Green, worked for Jack Daniel and taught Jack how to make whiskey,” the story became “Jack Daniel owned Nearest Green and stole his whiskey recipe, and the Jack Daniel’s company has kept that a secret all these years."
Dan Pashman: At the same time that this incorrect story was spreading, Fawn started doing her own research. She ordered a biography of Jack Daniel from 1967 that was based on interviews with Jack’s family, and other people who knew him. One thing about the book stuck out to her.
Fawn Weaver: I was absolutely floored that page after page after page spoke of the significance of not only Nearest Green but his boys Eli and George.
Dan Pashman: As Fawn says, back in 1967, the Daniel family could easily have left the Greens out of the story entirely. Black peoples’ contributions to American food and drink have often been erased. But as she read the biography, it felt to her like Jack descendants really went out of their way to credit Nearest and his family. She also remembered the photo that ran with the original Times article, which struck her as unusual. It depicts Jack sitting with a group of his workers, with Nearest’s son George on his right. But Fawn focused on the fact that Jack’s not in the middle of the image. George is. To her, this meant Jack had not only chosen to be photographed sitting next to a black man, but that he had ceded the center of the photo to him. Fawn said to herself , there’s a story here. Maybe she could make it into a book, maybe someday a movie. But first, she needed to know a lot more.
Dan Pashman: Fawn knew she had to go to Lynchburg, Tennessee, home of the Jack Daniel’s distillery. She and her husband, Keith, they have a tradition of celebrating big birthdays with big trips, to places like Paris or Rome. For her 40th, Fawn suggested Lynchburg.
Fawn Weaver: And he was not having it. He’s a Black man. The city’s called Lynchburg. He just wasn’t interested in going to a small town in the South with “lynch” in the name. Period. And so after several days of every single day… I do not call it nagging, I just call it reminding that....[laughing] I reminded him several times a day what I wanted for my 40th birthday.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Fawn Weaver: He said, "Babe, Prague. That’s on your list. You’ve been talking about Prague for years." And I said, "Yeah, let’s do it, that’s where I want to go for my 40th birthday." And he said, "Perfect!" And I said, "By way of Lynchburg!"
Dan Pashman: Two and a half months after seeing that article in the New York Times, Fawn and her husband arrived in Lynchburg. They booked a rental house to stay in. The owner had googled Fawn and Keith ahead of their arrival. So he already knew that she was a successful author, he was an executive at Sony Pictures and they were both Black.
Fawn Weaver: Because it’s a small town, word had already spread that we were coming into town. It was a thing. But then when we showed up at the library and we talked to the…
Dan Pashman: They’re like, “What?”
Fawn Weaver: Exactly. So obviously, immediately, the director picks up the phone and calls Jack’s eldest descendant and says, "Hey, there’s a couple, down at the library, doing research on your family.
Dan Pashman: Wow.
Fawn Weaver: And she was there, I wanna say, within 10 minutes.
Dan Pashman: So what was that first exchange like?
Fawn Weaver: She walks over to our table. She introduces herself, who she was. And I could see immediately in her eyes, a concern. And I understood it, because I had seen the headlines. I had seen her family be drug through the mud for two months. And a story that they knew was not true, they were having to answer for.
Dan Pashman: That story that was spreading was the incorrect version, that said that Jack Daniel had enslaved Nearest Green, and then stolen his whiskey recipe.
Fawn Weaver: And I looked at her in her eyes and said, "Listen, I am not here to harm your family’s legacy. I believe that the press and social media have this story wrong. And I believe it’s a story of love, honor and respect."
Dan Pashman: How did she respond?
Fawn Weaver: She said, then I wanna help you.
Fawn Weaver: And she pulls out her cell phone and she gives me the names and numbers of Nearest Green’s descendants. They grew up together. They ate around the same dinner table. They knew each other intimately. And that’s where the journey began for me.
Dan Pashman: While she was in Lynchburg, Fawn visited the Jack Daniel’s distillery. She had read so much about the history and the changes they were making to the tour. Now she’d get to experience it firsthand.
Fawn Weaver: In its entirety, I took the tour six different times with six different people and the name Nearest Green was never once mentioned, even when they were standing next to the photo with Nearest’s son in the center. It was never mentioned.
Dan Pashman: Turns out Jack Daniel’s had paused their plan to change the tour to highlight Nearest Green. I asked Fawn what she made of that.
Fawn Weaver: The story came out, they thought it was going to be a story that was embraced. The story immediately turned on them. And they pulled back as quickly as possible, and hoped that the blowback would go away. It wasn’t something that you could just share and expect people to say, "Yay! You’re embracing your African American heritage." We weren’t in that kind of climate for embracing. It’s 2016, a very interesting election year, and race is being used as a wedge.
Dan Pashman: Fawn understood why the company did what it did. But she was still determined to get Nearest Green the credit he deserved. So she started doing more research. She started reaching out to Nearest’s descendants, the people whose phone numbers she’d gotten at the library. She was introduced to the Eady family, four siblings in their 40s and 50s who’d grown up in Lynchburg. Three of them still worked at the Jack Daniel’s distillery. The fourth was a criminologist, Victoria Eady Butler.
Victoria Eady Butler: Growing up with Jack Daniel right down the road from me, you know, it was basically our playground. It’s very different now, but back in the day the residents were free to go in and out of the distillery at will. So for the people in Lynchburg, Tennessee whiskey, Jack Daniel specifically, it’s everything.
Dan Pashman: And what were you told about your family’s connection to Nearest Green when you were growing up?
Victoria Eady Butler: Your great-great-grandfather Nearest Green is the man who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. Those were my grandmother’s words.
Dan Pashman: And Victoria says that in Lynchburg, just about everyone knew the story.
Victoria Eady Butler: Victoria: Basically folks didn’t make a big deal of it. But no, it wasn’t a secret.
Dan Pashman: And so when that article first came out in the New York Times in June of 2016, what did people in Lynchburg think?
Victoria Eady Butler: Folks in Lynchburg didn’t read it.
Victoria Eady Butler: No, they had no idea that article even existed.
Dan Pashman: Fawn interviewed Victoria and her siblings to learn more about the Green legacy but that wasn’t all she did. She hired a team of 20 people to help her.
Fawn Weaver: Historians, archaeologists, genealogists, conservators...
Dan Pashman: They pulled documents from six different states.
Fawn Weaver: Every government archives that would carry anything involving Lynchburg.
Dan Pashman: She took out newspaper ads in Lynchburg asking for info and artifacts.
Fawn Weaver: People in Lynchburg were bringing artifacts that they had in their basements, their attics, that they didn’t know the significance of. We’re still paying for research, I can tell you that! [laughs]
Dan Pashman: In all, Fawn interviewed over a hundred descendants of Nearest Green, including ancestors in their 90s and one over a hundred, Helen Butler, who was raised by her grandfather, George Green, Nearest’s son.
Dan Pashman: Oh yeah, one more thing happened that shows just how committed Fawn was to this work. She bought the farm where Jack Daniel and Nearest Green met. That’s where she set up her research room.s
Dan Pashman: So what did she learn? Well, because Nearest Green was enslaved, it’s hard to pin down the details of his life with certainty. But Fawn has found some pretty compelling clues. These clues were always there, but they hadn’t before been tracked down and pieced together. He was born Nathan Green, but went by the nickname Nearest. Census records indicate he was born in Maryland in 1820.
Dan Pashman:By the 1850s, he was in his 30s and living in Tennessee, where he was enslaved by a farmer, preacher, and distiller named Dan Call. That’s where Nearest met Jack Daniel. Jack was just a kid at the time. His mother died when he was a baby, and he was sent to the Call farm to be a chore boy when he was seven. That farm is the one Fawn bought, where she set up her research room. And that’s where Nearest Green taught Jack Daniel how to distill whiskey, including showing him that charcoal filtration process you heard about at the start of the show. And where did that technique come from?
Fawn Weaver: When you look at charcoal mellowing, it was something that was already being used in West Africa. It’s still is to this day, to purify food and to filter water. And so you imagine these enslaved people coming here, one of the jobs they were given beyond cotton and tobacco was distilling. So if you imagine they’re distilling this stuff, based on how the Scots or the Irish, depending on who they were learning from. And they’re distilling it, they're tasting it, and they’re wanting to spit it out. It would have been really rough back then. I mean, really really rough. I imagine them tasting it and going, we need to smooth this out. And using a process they used back at home in order to do that. So there is only one difference between Tennessee whiskey and Kentucky bourbon, and it is what Nearest Green taught and it’s what the enslaved people brought into America.
Dan Pashman: And Nearest did more than teach Jack to distill. Remember, Nearest was nearly 30 years older. It’s hard to say for sure what their relationship was like, we don’t have an account of it directly from Nearest. But the biography of Jack Daniel characterizes Nearest as a mentor.
Fawn Weaver: Keep in mind that Jack’s father died in the Civil War. So when Jack was 15, he did not have a mother or a father. And the person who he would have spent the most time with was Nearest Green. And so we know that he taught him not just to make whiskey, but how to play the fiddle. How to do life. So it was not your typical type of relationship between an enslaved man and an orphan boy.
Dan Pashman: Nearest married a woman named Harriet. They had 11 kids. Nearest was freed at the end of the Civil War in 1865. And it’s this post-war period where Fawn and her team have filled in a lot of crucial gaps. The official story used to be that Jack Daniel opened his first distillery in 1866, but it was unclear where. Then one of Jack’s descendants reached out to Fawn and told her he used to search the Dan Call farm with his metal detector. And, he’d turned up a few items over the years.
Fawn Weaver: He said there is a particular artifact that I think belongs at that farm, and I want to bring it back. And it was a metal bottle jug stencil, and it’s read, “Jack Daniel,” no apostrophe “s.”
Dan Pashman: That was strange. Why would a Jack Daniel stencil be at Dan Call’s farm? Well, not long after Fawn got that stencil, the Lynchburg archivist found three leases that Jack had signed, including one for land that was part of Dan Call’s property. Meaning, Jack Daniel had actually started his distillery there, before moving to the current location.
Dan Pashman: That discovery was new in and of itself. But more relevant to this story, was that on that very first lease, Nearest Green was listed as the head distiller. That makes him the first master distiller for Jack Daniel’s and, most likely, the first African American master distiller in U.S. history.
Dan Pashman: According to Nearest’s descendants, Jack Daniel paid his workers based on tenure, not on color. If a white person was hired on to do something a Black person was already doing, the white person would be paid less, since they were new. And Jack’s descendants continued that policy. Census data from that time shows that the Greens were wealthier than many of the white families that lived around them. Nearest’s sons even owned a sizable amount of land in the area, likely purchased with money they made from working at the distillery.
Fawn Weaver: So you had a family that were elite. When people saw them, they stopped and they honored them. They respected them. We don’t have any pictures of Nearest, but we have plenty of pictures of his children and grandchildren. And they always took a picture looking dead into the camera, with their chest out, their shoulders back, their head held high, and you knew you were looking at power.
Dan Pashman: Nearest Green died in 1900. Jack died 11 years later. Here again is Victoria Eady Butler.
Victoria Eady Butler: That friendship trickled down through the generations. I would say today, that our family relationships, our friendship, still remains.
Dan Pashman: Am I right? Members of the Green family have worked at Jack Daniel’s continuously. Some member of the family has been working there since Nearest Green was there.
Victoria Eady Butler: Absolutely, there’s never been Jack Daniel’s made without a Green on the property.
Dan Pashman: In less than a year, Fawn and her team collected more than 10,000 documents and artifacts related to Nearest Green. But Jack Daniel’s plans to incorporate Green’s story into their company history were still on hold. Then one day in early 2017, Fawn gets a visit from Nelson Eddy, Jack Daniel’s in-house historian.
Fawn Weaver: And he began looking at the documents and he began learning a lot that he didn’t know. And he had been their historian for over two decades. And so as he went through it, he said, you know, there’s someone who I really want you to get in front of and I don’t know how we’re going to do it. It was the president of Jack Daniel at the time, Mark MacCallum.
Dan Pashman: The next day, Fawn gets a phone call from Mark. He says, “I hear you know more about my company than I do.” He’s blown away by her research. He wants to incorporate what Fawn has learned into the company’s story. He asks if he can come by the research room for a visit.
Fawn Weaver: And I told him, I said in order to get from the airfield to this farm in Lynchburg, Tennessee, you have to pass by Jack Daniel. You have to pass by your distillery. And there are three descendants of Nearest Green, who still work there, who have desperately been trying to have this story told for about 40 years. And no one has acknowledged it since they have been there. So what I need for you to do is before you come to see me, is to stop, go into the distillery, ask to see them, and shake their hands, and share your gratitude for their ancestor. These are all Victoria’s siblings. And they broke into tears. And after about an hour of just them being able to let that go, to release that that they held for so long, by the time he showed up at my farm and walked in, he hadn’t even crossed over the threshold of the front door and he said, "I don’t ever want to experience anything like what I just experienced. Tell me how to make this right." And so we began from the very beginning, determined that we were going to make it right together.
Dan Pashman: Victoria, do you think, the fact that this hadn’t been more widely acknowledged, obviously, was a source of pain for your family. Do you think you were aware of that pain before Fawn started going the work that she was doing? Before this got brought out into the open?
Victoria Eady Butler: Well, I don’t know if I’d say pain. We were aware of the void. I didn’t realize... here I go again. I didn’t realize until getting to know Fawn and her sharing more about my family than I knew, I didn’t realize how much it meant to me. As a young girl, your grandmother sharing these things with you, it doesn’t register like it does when you are a full-grown woman. Knowing what Nearest gave, what he brought all those years ago, is still relevant today. And so now, even when Fawn is sharing with you about the president of Jack Daniel meeting my siblings, that’s still very emotional for me and I wasn’t even there. But when she shared it with me the first time, I just burst into tears. It was very overwhelming and it let me know more about her than anything. Because of Fawn that void is closing.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, Jack Daniel’s officially makes the change that they had promised and Victoria takes the new tour for the first time. Then, Fawn makes another dream come true for Nearest Green’s descendants. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Thank you so much to all of you who listened to the special episodes we released in honor of our 10th anniversary. Those of you who shared messages on social media and thanks to those of you who joined us for our Instagram Live with Sohla El Waylly and Carla Hall. We raised $3,000 for Feeding America. Sohla taught me how to make a roux! So it’s official you guys, I have mastered this most basic cooking technique. And Carla and I talked about the importance of uncomfortable conversations, and whether my habit of microwaving ice cream to get it more melty makes me a monster.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Pop it in the microwave and in seconds...not long. Just enough to soften it.
CLIP (CARLA HALL): Do you finish that pint in that sitting?
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): No.
CLIP (CARLA HALL): The reason that I wouldn't put it in the microwave and let it get soft is because you don't have a deep freeze. You don't have a blast chiller. So now, that ice cream doesn't freeze properly. So now, it's compromised. It's not going to be this delicious the second time when you back to it, because you're freezer just slowly froze it.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Yeah. You know, that's what my mom tell me, also, when she gets mad at me when I come to visit her.
CLIP (CARLA HALL): You are a traveling ice cream melter?
Dan Pashman: Now, back to the story of Nearest Green. So Mark McCallum, the president of Jack Daniel’s, meets Victoria’s siblings. He visits Fawn’s research room and learns about Nearest Green’s contributions in greater detail. Within two weeks, Jack Daniel’s is asking Fawn to look over a new script for the distillery tours, and they’re making changes to the official history on their website.
Dan Pashman: Do you remember the first time you took the revised tour?
Fawn Weaver: It took me a really long time. And the reason why it took me a really long time is that I knew there were some tour guides, who were having a really hard time with having to change the way they’d been telling the story for 20, 30 years. Because a lot of their tour guides have been there for decades and they were really bothered by it. I think almost less about the fact that it was Nearest Green that was being added as much as it was they were being told they had to change what they had been doing for so long. And in their mind and their assessment it’s because this woman from L.A. came to town and forced a change.
Dan Pashman: We talked with a Jack Daniel’s spokesperson for this episode, and he read the resistance to changing the tour a little differently. He says the story of Jack Daniel that they’d been telling for years was that Dan Call had taught him to make whiskey. The brand and its story meant so much to people, that telling a different story might have felt jarring. Despite the initial grumblings, the tour guides all adopted the change.
CLIP (TOUR GUIDE): Now, the man who taught Jack to make whiskey was Mr. Nathan Nearest Green. Did y’all take a second and take a look at that giant display that we have....
Dan Pashman: The tour of Jack Daniel’s is still mostly about Jack’s life, of course. But now they make sure to give Nearest Green his due.
CLIP (TOUR GUIDE): Mr. Green, during the time of the Civil War and before emancipation, he was in fact an enslaved man over on the Call property. But guys, after emancipation, Mr. Green found himself absolutely free to choose anything he wanted to do. And all he wanted to do was to stay with Jack, running whiskey, and that’s exactly what he did. Yeah. He taught Jack how to make whiskey, and Jack hired him on as his very first master distiller.
Dan Pashman: To be clear, after emancipation, Nearest Green was almost certainly not “free to choose anything he wanted to do.” His options were still severely limited. The reality for most freed Black people was that they hadn’t been taught to read or write, they didn’t have any money, and they didn’t have anywhere safe to go. But it’s true that after emancipation, Nearest stayed with Jack.
Dan Pashman: Anyway, back on the the tour the guide walks the group over to a wall of photos. It’s all the past and present master distillers at Jack Daniel’s, and that photo of Jack next to George Green, the same photo that caught Fawn’s attention with George in the center.
CLIP (TOUR GUIDE): This is where Mr. Nathan Nearest Green’s picture belongs. After asking the family for photos so we could honor him up here, they came back with a bunch of pictures but they weren’t sure which one was actually him...
Dan Pashman: Victoria remembers the first time she took the revised tour.
Victoria Eady Butler: I had a friend come into town who wanted to go to Jack. So I took them on the tour. I didn’t know the change had been implemented and so I was caught by surprise. It was a very proud moment for me. I've turned into an emotional mess for the last few years but it’s one that I embrace and I'm proud of.
Dan Pashman: This change to the Jack Daniel’s story felt like a huge win. But it didn’t change the fact that Jack Daniel and his family made a lot of money from the whiskey company over the years. In 1956 they sold it to Brown Forman for 20 million dollars, about 190 million in today’s money. While Nearest Green and his descendants do appear to have been paid fairly in comparison to other workers, they didn’t own any of it. So they didn’t get any of those millions.
Dan Pashman: I’m curious Victoria, I gather from the stories you shared and all the research that Fawn has done that Jack Daniel treated the Green family very well and there was a strong relationship between the families going back to day one. Has there ever been a discussion in your family… It’s nice that the credit is happening and that the family has been treated well, but man, Jack Daniel’s whiskey makes a lot of money.
Victoria Eady Butler: They do.
Dan Pashman: Have you ever felt like perhaps the family should have some of that?
Victoria Eady Butler: No, not really. Jack isn’t owned by the family of Jack Daniel anymore. So to say that Brown Forman, the owner of the company, owes my family, that’s probably a bit of a stretch. So I can’t speak to yesteryear, or what my family think is owed to us. It’s better to concentrate on going forward. So that is what I opt to do and I hope that my family agrees with that.
Dan Pashman: As we said, Fawn spoke with many members of the Green family for her research. But there was one meeting where she gathered 40 or 50 of Nearest Green’s descendants together. She shared all that she had learned with them.
Fawn Weaver: And at the end of it I said, "What is the one thing that you believe should happen to honor your ancestor?" And they all began looking around, and it was only one person, who literally raised his hand after doing all the looking around, and he’s like, "Well, we think that his name should be on a bottle. He deserves to have his own bottle."
Dan Pashman: In other words, they wanted a brand of whiskey named for Nearest Green. But, that’s not a small ask.
Fawn Weaver: If you’re going to do this and do it right, not sort of go into it and then possibly have this thing shut down 4 or 5 or 10 years later, which is what happens with the majority of craft distilleries, you have to raise a lot of money. When you are trying to cement someone’s legacy for centuries, this is not a cheap proposition.
Dan Pashman: Fawn went ahead with it anyway. In the last few years, she’s raised more than 40 million dollars to fund the new company, Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey.
Dan Pashman: One note: In some contexts, “uncle” is a term of disrespect that white people have used for Black people. But Fawn says that in Lynchburg, it was a term of respect not tied to race. Nearest Green was known as Uncle Nearest, and Jack Daniel was known as Uncle Jack. In any case, Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey sells three varieties right now. There’s the 1820 single barrel, named for Nearest’s birth year. The 1856 premium aged whiskey, named for the year Nearest is believed to have perfected his recipe. And there’s the 1884 small batch, named for the last year that he’s believed to have put whiskey in barrels.
Dan Pashman: Fawn decided that some of the profits from the company would be used to help create the Nearest Green Foundation which, among other things, provides college scholarships for Green’s descendants. And the company has taken the connection to Green’s family one step further.
Dan Pashman: So Victoria, you’re just about to retire from the job you’ve held for 31 years and Fawn comes along and says, "Hey, why don’t you come work making Uncle Nearest whiskey." What do you think in that moment?
Victoria Eady Butler: Yes. [laughs] You really can’t say no to Fawn. But by then, we had talked a lot. I was ready and thankfully the opportunity was there. I didn’t realize how much I love whiskey. I’ve always enjoyed drinking whiskey. I’ve always enjoyed cocktails but she unlocked a passion that was in me for 50 plus years. And now I get to share that passion on a daily basis with our whiskey family. So it’s absolutely phenomenal for me.
Dan Pashman: Victoria is now the master blender at Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, located in Shelbyville, Tennessee. Not every batch of whiskey has the exact same taste. So the master blender oversees mixing the different batches together to get the right flavor in every bottle. Uncle Nearest has won a number of prestigious awards, including World’s Best Tennessee Whiskey at the World Whiskies Awards both last year and this year.
Dan Pashman: Now look, I’m no expert on the south. But I know enough to know that relationships there between Black folks and White folks are sometimes complicated and contradictory. Still, it was hard for me to wrap my head around this story of a Black man and a white man being pals before, during, and after the Civil War.
Dan Pashman: I am interested because looking at it through the lens of today, there’s obviously still a power imbalance between the two of them just in society. And I guess I’m just curious how that would have affected their friendship. It feels complicated, I guess...
Fawn Weaver: It doesn’t feel complicated to me!
Victoria Eady Butler: Me either. This is how I see it. It’s just like any other business where there is the owner, kinda like me and Fawn. Fawn owns Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey. People make the distinction that Fawn is superior to the folks that she has hired. Nothing could be further from the truth. She doesn't believe in hierarchy, everybody is equal, including herself. So I like to think that Jack and Nearest were much like we are right now.
Dan Pashman: After that conversation, there was still a part of this story that didn’t compute for me. I mean, Fawn and Victoria are working together in a very different time from Jack and Nearest’s day. So I called Fawn up to chat more, and she said, "Yeah, I hear you."
Fawn Weaver: This is not a normal story, so you know, I understand if things don’t make sense. They don’t always make sense to me and I’ve lived through all the interviews.
Dan Pashman: As I said, one of those interviews was with Miss Helen Butler, who died in 2018. She was Nearest’s great-granddaughter, and while she didn’t know him, she did know Nearest’s son, her grandfather George.
Fawn Weaver: But I’ll tell you, Miss Helen was very clear, because people kept pushing back on me as I told this story. And she said, "Fawn you tell this story, and you tell the truth." And to her, this is the truth. And I won’t sway from that.
Dan Pashman: That’s Fawn Weaver and Victoria Eady Butler of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey. One note to add, earlier this year Uncle Nearest and Jack Daniel’s announced they’re partnering to fund an initiative to increase diversity within the American whiskey industry through the Nearest Green Foundation that Fawn and her husband Keith created. We’ll post more info on that at sporkful.com.
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show, who was James Beard? I mean, most of us know his name from the James Beard Awards, which have been dubbed the Oscars of the food world. But in the 1950s and 60s, James Beard was a household name. He was the first celebrity chef on TV and the nation’s foremost expert on American food, ll while being in the closet. I’ll talk with the author of a new biography of James Beard, that’s next week.
Dan Pashman: Special thanks this episode to our friends at the podcast Brought To You By, for sharing the audio of their tour at the Jack Daniel's distillery. If you haven't checked them out yet, give them a listen. It's a great show. They tell the surprising stories behind some of the most iconic brands, like M&Ms.
CLIP (CHARLIE): In 1976, Mars pulled red M&Ms from the market, not because the candy was proven to cause cancer but because people were afraid that it might.
CLIP (JASON): And in my young head, that was the story, that red M&Ms caused cancer in people. That's why they pulled them.
CLIP (CHARLIE): It all started with a series of flawed experiments from the Soviet Union, studies which ignited a red, food-coloring scare in America that made its way all the way to Congress and the Food and Drug Administration.
CLIP (SWANN): Consumers started to call everybody wanted to know if red M&M’s caused cancer.
Dan Pashman: Thanks to Charlie Herman, Julia Press, and Sarah Wyman of Brought To You By, you can hear more of their show on Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.