When Fawn Weaver first heard Jack Daniel’s was willing to acknowledge the role of Tennessee slave Nathan “Nearest” Green’s role in bringing one of the world’s most iconic whiskies to life, she couldn’t help but learn the history for herself. But after three separate tours of their Lynchburg distillery made no mention of Green, Weaver took matters into her own hands. Roughly one year, ten thousand documents and countless hours of interviews later, Jack Daniels has a new first master distiller.
Though inspired by curiosity, the project soon consumed Weaver. She tracked down and purchased the farmstead where Green (then loaned to a farmer named Dan Call from his owners, Landis & Green) first showed a young Daniels how to distill whiskey and converted part of the estate into her workspace. She also scoured archives across Georgia, Tennessee, and D.C., for any information about the two men she could find.
Plenty of Green’s relatives still lived nearby, and many of them were eager to share the untold story of their famous forefather. “It’s something my grandmother always told us,” said Debbie Ann Eady-Staples, a relative of Green’s who’s spent nearly forty years as a Jack Daniels employee. “We knew it in our family, even if it didn’t come from the company.”
Though the charged political climate of 2016 initially scuttled parent company Brown-Forman’s plans to add Green to the history of Jack Daniel’s, they’ve embraced and integrated Weaver’s findings in the time since. Though no verified photograph of Green exists, a photo of Daniels that may include Nearest or one of his sons now adorns the Lynchburg distiller’s wall of master distillers, and his story is now a part of all five tour scripts. “We want to get across that Nearest Green was a mentor to Jack,” said Steve May, director of Homeplace & Marketing Operations.
An author by trade, Weaver is hard at work on book chronicling Green’s life. She’s lost Green’s trail after 1884, but hopes meeting with additional relatives outside the area can clear things up. In the meantime, she hopes to transform four acres in the town of Lynchburg into a memorial to America’s first black master distiller. Those reams of documents she’s uncovered will also be on their way to the National Museum of African American History and Culture once her work is complete.
Most importantly, Weaver partnered with a nearby distillery (Jack Daniels wanted to avoid the appearance of profiting from his legacy) to produce Uncle Nearest 1856. A second batch made to recreate the recipe that Green taught Daniels is also in the works. No word on what exactly that might taste like, but it’ll certainly be a fitting tribute to an unsung African-American hero and the woman who worked tirelessly to revive his legacy.