By Mark Gillespie
June 11, 2020 – In the years before the Civil War, Nathan “Nearest” Green taught a young Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. At the time, Green was an enslaved man on the farm of the Rev. Dan Call in Tennessee. They teamed up after the Civil War ended, when Jack Daniel opened his own distillery and hired the newly freed Green as his head distiller, along with his sons. To this day, there has always been at least one descendant of Nearest Green working at the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg.
Now, the Tennessee Whiskey brand named for Nearest Green and Jack Daniel’s are teaming up once again. Fawn Weaver’s Uncle Nearest Tennessee Whiskey and Jack Daniel’s owner Brown-Forman have pledged $5 million to underwrite the Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative with a goal of improving diversity within the American Whiskey industry.
The announcement comes following the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis Police, along with the recent Louisville Police shooting of Breonna Taylor and the Georgia shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. Those homicides set off a nationwide debate over police brutality and ongoing discrimination against African-Americans with protests in many U.S. cities and calls for action.
Uncle Nearest and Jack Daniel’s had already been working for more than a year on a program to create the Nearest Green School of Distilling at Motlow State Community College’s Lynchburg campus when the protests began. “I was on the phone with the head of Jack Daniel’s and their team and said ‘listen, I’ve got an idea…would you be open to coming alongside us because it’s just too big of an idea for Uncle Nearest. It’s going to require a lot of money, it’s going to require a lot of resources,” Weaver said. Brown-Forman jumped on the idea as part of the company’s ten-year-long project to improve its record on diversity and inclusion.
“A lot of people rush to make a statement, and don’t put a lot behind it,” Fawn Weaver said on the WhiskyCast #WhiskyWednesday webcast. “I prefer that people be thoughtful about what they are doing…what we have been working on behind the scenes with Jack Daniel’s, and it’s not just Jack Daniel’s, I’ve been working behind the scenes with six different distilleries on the initiative,” she said.
“The moment that we are in in our country is an impetus for all of us to take action,” said Jack Daniel’s global brand director Matt Blevins. “Some of this work that we’re announcing today has been being worked on for a while, and this has been just a great opportunity for us to announce our action…which is so important here in that we’re taking action with the Uncle Nearest team and the Jack Daniel’s team to make progress on issues of diversity and inclusion in the whiskey industry, which we do know we have work to do,” he said in a telephone interview.
The centerpiece of the initiative will be the distilling program at Motlow State. The college is named for the Motlow family, which traces its lineage back to Jack Daniel and owned the distillery from 1907 until 1956, when it was sold to Brown-Forman.. That program has been in the works for more than a year, with executives from both companies helping to develop the curriculum. Motlow State is awaiting final approval from the Tennessee Board of Regents to begin the accreditation process with a goal of offering courses next year leading to an associate’s degree.
“It stands where we are today in terms of our social climate in the nation, this would be important because of the relationship that Jack and Nearest had, and it is one of those relationships that has born something that is of quality, that has been strong enough to last the test of time, and this is a representation of what happens when we work together,” says MSCC President Dr. Michael Torrence. In a telephone interview, he cited the program’s dual emphasis on cultural education and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in making the program attractive for students. “The one that makes me the most excited is to be able to go through this and learning about the processes and someone starting their own entrepreneurial asset as a distiller…I’m excited about what will come out of that,” Torrence said. As of now, the school will not have an on-campus distillery, but Torrence is not ruling that out in the future.
The impetus for the program was Weaver’s own inability to recruit minority candidates to work for the industry’s largest Black-owned whiskey company. “I would have never thought that one of the big issues is we need to make this cool for African-Americans, we need this to be something they aspire to. I fell into this…I’m the child of two teetotalers, the last place I would have ever found myself was in this business, and so now, the question is if people are kind of getting into it accidentally, African-Americans are, which every African-American I’ve ever spoken to that’s in this has gotten into it accidentally, the question is, how do we get people into it purposely,” Weaver said.
The initiative also includes a leadership acceleration program for African-Americans already working in the industry who want to advance into management roles in distilling, maturation, or production. That program has already recruited its first class of apprentices, who will begin training at distilleries around the country. In addition, a mentorship program will serve as an incubator for African-American entrepreneurs developing spirits brands with assistance in marketing, branding, and distribution.
“The success measures will be pretty easy to look at,” Blevins said. “Have we impacted the number of people participating in our industry who are Black, and Black-owned business, are they thriving as we give support and a step up through that business incubation program, and are we recruiting and creating the next generation of Black leaders in our industry? That’s success,” he said.
“If we were in any other industry, what we’re doing right now would essentially be considered building competitors,” Weaver said in a telephone interview following the announcement. “We will not own any portion at all of the businesses that we are coming alongside of in the business incubation program…this is solely to raise up more African-Americans in this industry to success, so not only do others see that success and then want to enter the business, but also those who choose to enter the business, it makes it easier for them to raise capital and if you can’t raise capital in this business, you will not succeed,” she said.
Nearest Green’s role in the Jack Daniel’s legacy had barely become a footnote in the brand’s official history until a 2015 New York Times article revived interest in his story. The Master Distillers Series created by Jack Daniel’s several years ago for the travel retail market featured Jack Daniel as the original “master distiller” for the world’s top-selling American whiskey brand. However, the brand now acknowledges publicly that Nearest Green was the original head distiller, and the Jack Daniel’s web site and distillery tours in Lynchburg include the story of the relationship between two men and Nearest Green’s role as head distiller (the term “master distiller” was not coined until the 1990’s.)
“We know that Jack made whiskey, knew how to make whiskey, but we also know that Nearest Green was our first head distiller,” Blevins said. “We actually know that there were probably some others who qualified and had that title, but were not part of our Master Distillers Series…it’s something that we are correcting, have corrected, and we’ll continue to lift up the story of Nearest.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated following an additional interview with Fawn Weaver of Uncle Nearest.