This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode The Secret History of the Slave Behind Jack Daniel’s Whiskey, first released on January 29, 2019. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
FAWN WEAVER: Well, it was hard. I decided I wanted to go to Lynchburg, Tennessee, and he said absolutely not. I am not, as a black man, going to a town with “lynch” in the name.
NICOLA TWILLEY: But that is exactly where we are going this episode—to Lynchburg, Tennessee, the home of Jack Daniel’s whiskey.
CYNTHIA GRABER: Because Fawn Weaver—she’s the woman who wanted to convince her husband to go on a trip to Lynchburg—she discovered new information about the forgotten history of Jack Daniel’s, and the role of a former slave in building this iconic American brand. You’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber.
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this week we’re telling a story. It’s a story about one man, a former slave who got written out of history. But it’s also a story about how American whiskey became American whiskey.
GRABER: And a story of the role of enslaved people in its creation. But before we get to that, we have a fun comment from listener Allison Olszewski in response to our last episode all about artificial sweeteners. She is a biochemist herself and shared an interesting bit of chemistry history that we didn’t know!
ALLISON OLSZEWSKI: I love your podcast and I just finished listening to the Sweet and Low (Calorie) episode. I would like to point out something about chemists tasting their experiments. This is not likely an accident. In early organic chemistry, it was a very common way for some chemists to easily monitor the progress of some chemical reactions. Chemicals can taste very differently so the taste of starting chemical could be very different from the taste of a transformed chemical. Today we monitor progress using thin layer chromatography or mass spectrometry. This is much more quantitative, safer, and no tasting allowed.
TWILLEY: Also—shhh—Allison told us that even during her undergrad, which wasn’t so very long ago, her professor was known to occasionally taste the odd reaction. And there I was judging those chemists for their sloppy lab hygiene. Little did I know it was common practice. That’s me told.
GRABER: Still, I’m glad it’s no longer common practice today, whether or not it led to billion-dollar businesses. That doesn’t sound super safe. Anyway.
TWILLEY: We’re on our way back to whiskey town, but first we want to tell you about an opportunity. If you’re a journalist and you have a cool food and farming related story you want to tell, then you should apply for the UC Berkeley 11th Hour Food and Farming Fellowship. It’s run by Michael Pollan with Jen Kahn and Malia Wollan, and it is an amazing opportunity.
GRABER: In fact, this is how Nicky and I met, so really the fellowship is like Gastropod’s fairy godmother! Also, it’s $10,000 to report a really cool story, so if you have one, pitch them! We have info on our website, gastropod.com.
TWILLEY: And finally, if you live in or around Athens, Ohio, we’re coming to town! We’ll be performing at Ohio University on Monday, February 11. This is our last show for quite a while—we’re not traveling again to perform until next year. So if you’re around, come! And say hi! February 11 in Athens, Ohio at Ohio University—all the details are on our website, gastropod.com.
WEAVER: So this story—I learned of this in June of 2016. June 28th. I was in Singapore and it was on the cover of The New York Times International Edition.
TWILLEY: This, like we said, is Fawn Weaver. She’s an author and a business woman. And in June 2016, she was in Singapore reading The New York Times. And there was a headline that caught her eye: “Jack Daniel embraces a hidden ingredient: Help from a slave.”
WEAVER: So that was the headline I saw. And I read it. And for me, as an African-American, it was mind boggling because we know that African-Americans have been involved in so many brands over the centuries but we’ve never been able to pinpoint to one and say: This person actually had a name and this person had a significant role. And so it was exciting to me just from the outside as a spectator looking at it and going, whoa, if this is true, this is pretty incredible!
GRABER: Fawn didn’t just read this story, she actually acted on it—but before we get to her story, let’s back up.
TWILLEY: To the story she was reading. Which was written by my friend Clay Risen.
CLAY RISEN: My name is Clay Risen and I am the deputy op-ed editor at The New York Times.
TWILLEY: But he’s also a whiskey expert.
RISEN: So I write about whiskey and spirits for The New York Times and other publications. I’m also the author of two books on whiskey. One is American Whiskey, Bourbon, and Rye, which is a guide to American spirits. And then Single Malt, which is a new guide to single malt scotch.
GRABER: Clay grew up in Nashville, in Tennessee.
RISEN: So I knew a lot about Jack Daniels—as as a company that made whiskey, as the whiskey that everyone had at home because it was the hometown whiskey. So I knew of it as a tourist attraction and as a cultural icon. It was, I want to say, the first whiskey I ever tried but I can’t—I can’t be sure. That said, I think it’s probably everyone’s first whiskey.
GRABER: At least in America. But yes, in America, that’s pretty much true.
TWILLEY: So we’re back in early 2016. And Clay got an email from the company that owns Jack Daniel’s, it’s called Brown Forman, and it’s a big liquor company—it owns a bunch of brands you’ve heard of.
RISEN: Someone from the company was in touch with me about a variety of things that they were sort of pushing out into the media because it was the 150-year anniversary of the founding of the brand. And one of the things that he brought up to me was: Did you know that Jack Daniel learned to make whiskey from a slave?
TWILLEY: Up till—well, basically now—if you knew the story of Jack Daniel’s, the story you probably knew was that Jack was taught to distill by a pastor, a man named Dan Call. Sometime in the 1850s, when Jack was still a young kid, he was sent to work for Dan Call, doing chores.
GRABER: Clay had heard that story—that the preacher Dan Call was the one who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey.
TWILLEY: But he’d also vaguely heard something about a slave—way before the company even reached out to him.
GRABER: In this alternate story, there was a slave at Dan Call’s, and this slave was the one who taught Jack Daniel to make whiskey.
RISEN: You know, it’s one of these things that I’m pretty sure if I went back and looked at my research for my first book that it was there, kind of tucked away. But weirdly, and I kick myself about this, it’s something that didn’t really jump out at me. It wasn’t a secret but it wasn’t something that people talked about in any real way.
GRABER: But this time, when the PR guy mentioned it, Clay realized this was indeed a good story. So he traveled to Lynchburg, and he wrote about the slave and his relationship with Jack Daniel for The New York Times. The slave’s name was Nearest Green. But there were a few things about the story that kind of niggled at Clay, even after he published his piece.
RISEN: I really didn’t have the time or the resources to learn in-depth, to learn a lot more about Nearest Green himself. To learn more about the relationship between Nearest Green and Jack Daniel. You know, I could sort of sketch the outlines but it wasn’t something that in retrospect or even immediately that I was fully satisfied with. I felt like there’s a lot more to do here. But I want to get this story out and see what happens.
TWILLEY: And what happens? Fawn Weaver read Clay’s story. And she was fascinated by it.
WEAVER: I order the Jack Daniel’s Legacy, which was his only official biography. It was written in 1967. So I order it with the thought process that the book may not actually mention Nearest by name. But it might mention a slave or it might mention something of that nature. And so I get the book. And very early on into the book you begin seeing Nearest Green. Uncle Nearest. And his sons Eli and George. And they are talked about throughout the book. Now that we’ve actually re-published the book we know exactly how many times they were talked about. It’s 50 times.
TWILLEY: Fifty times. As Fawn read this biography, she realized maybe this wasn’t just another story of a white guy stealing a slave’s invention and getting all the credit.
WEAVER: If you’ve stolen a recipe and you’re trying to hide the person, you do not mention them so many times in your own biography. And to understand that the biography—everyone who was interviewed to write this story on Jack were all of the people who were around him. So his nephews that had taken over the distillery, his nephew’s sons who were all running the distillery and running the bank that he founded, all of his employees, his closest friends, his family. That is who was being interviewed and they must have mentioned Nearest and his boys so many times that there was just no choice but to have them fully integrated in this story. And so a part of me thinks Jack’s family wanted to make sure something that I believe that Jack would have done if he had been alive when this biography was being written—which was to make sure that Nearest’s name didn’t get written out of the history books. The irony of it all is it eventually did get written out of the history books and we still don’t know how that happened.
GRABER: Because somehow, in between 1967 and today, the origin story of Jack Daniel had become that the white preacher Dan Call had taught Jack everything he needed to know. Nearest had disappeared.
TWILLEY: So it seemed as though there was much more to this story than Fawn originally thought. And actually, more that still needed to be figured out.
WEAVER: The historian in me just wanted to dive in and learn as much as I could about Nearest. And again, being African-American and having the opportunity to piece this story together for future generations was just something I couldn’t pass up.
GRABER: Fawn had a fortieth birthday coming up, and she told her husband just what she wanted to do to celebrate. She wanted to go to Lynchburg.
WEAVER: And he said absolutely not. I am not, as a black man, going to a town with “lynch” in the name. And so it was a little bit of negotiating with him. And so I was able to use the occasion of my fortieth birthday to do it. You cannot tell your wife she can’t go where she wants to go for her fortieth birthday, it just doesn’t work. And so every conversation we’d have, he’s trying to plan Paris and he’s trying to plan Rome, and I’m like, yeah, we can go to those places by way of Lynchburg. So finally he relented and said, “Fine, if that’s where you want to spend your fortieth birthday, that’s what we’ll do. But I am not staying longer than four days.” So we booked the trip for four days and I called the descendant who was referenced in The New York Times article.
TWILLEY: Using the magic powers of Google, Fawn had tracked this guy down.
WEAVER: So I called him and I said, you know—Claude Eady is his name. I said, Claude Eady, is this the Claude Eady on Main Street in Lynchburg? He says, I am. And so I told him who I was. And I said, listen, I believe that there’s more to this story than what is being reported in the press. I believe there is a book here. I believe there’s a movie here. And I’d love to come down and interview you and see if I’m right. And I told him I’d be there in two weeks and he says well—at the time he was 91—he says, I’m 91 years old. I cannot tell you if I’ll still be here in two weeks. But if I’m still here in two weeks you’re welcome to interview me. And sure enough we landed in Lynchburg, Tennessee, to go interview him specifically.
GRABER: But before Fawn went to meet Claude, she did what any good researcher would do. First she went to the local library.
WEAVER: And the librarian learned what we were researching and made some phone calls. And very shortly thereafter a woman walks through the door and she’s the second eldest living descendant of Jack Daniel. She’s now the eldest living descendant of Jack Daniel but at the time she was the second. And she walks through. And it makes all the sense in the world—you find out someone is in town doing research on your family. That person’s from L.A., so you’re assuming they’re liberal. That person is African-American, so you’re assuming they’re not there to look for the best story. And they’re not there to look for the real story but rather as sensationalized. So she was legitimately concerned walking through the doors. And I could sense that. And when she introduced who she was, I told her, I said, listen. I said, I read your ancestor’s biography. And if Nearest was intentionally hidden it was not by your family and it was not by Jack. And it is my belief that just in reading—not necessarily what was written in the biography but reading between the lines, understanding this is a biography being written in 1967—height of the civil rights era, the reporter that is writing it is a white reporter from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. You’re down the road from Pulaski, Tennessee, where the Ku Klux Klan began and was still very active in 1967. And this reporter has mentioned Nearest and his family over and over and over again in the authoritative biography of the biggest white whiskey maker that has ever come out of America. And so I looked at her and I said, it’s between the lines that I read. And that I believe that there is a story of love, honor, and respect here.
TWILLEY: And so, the second living eldest descendant of Jack Daniel—now the eldest—she heard this, and she decided to trust Fawn.
WEAVER: And so she pulls out her cell phone and she begins to give me telephone numbers of Nearest’s descendants and Jack’s. Because they grew up together and they ate around the same dinner table and they hung out together and they played together. As soon as she realized I wasn’t there for a sensationalized version of the story but I was there for the truth, she was comfortable in opening up her Rolodex. And then she says, you know in that book where Jack grew up and where he learned how to make whiskey, you do realize that farm is for sale? You should go buy it. And I did. So that’s where it all began.
GRABER: Yep, Fawn bought Dan Call’s farm. And she lost no time in trying to dig into everything she could find out about Nearest, his relationship to Jack, his family. To do that, it took, well, a town.
WEAVER: So it was just an entire community of people coming together and pulling things that they had in their basement. I would get phone calls that said, listen, I’ve got this legal document, it has a Green family member on it. I have no idea who it is. Do you know who Minnie Green is? And I said, Yeah I’ll be there in five minutes, that’s Nearest’s daughter. Hold on to that piece of paper. And I would go to that neighbor’s house. And so the whole community really got involved in telling this story and getting it right.
TWILLEY: Part of the reason that Fawn had to involve the entire city of Lynchburg in uncovering this story is because it’s really hard to uncover the stories of enslaved people in early America.
WEAVER: The thing to understand about slave trading unfortunately is it is the equivalent of cattle—trying to track cattle. They did not go by name in terms of the records. They weren’t treated as people. Until December 6, 1865, with the passing of the 13th Amendment, we as African-Americans were not people, we were property. So there is no records of us. In the slave rolls it will just tell you whether we were colored or mulatto. It’s not going to tell you what a name was.
GRABER: Clay encountered the same problem when he was doing his research for his book and for The New York Times. Slaves weren’t necessarily considered worthy of note. On top of that, many people were illiterate. There wasn’t necessarily a lot of record keeping, and, even if people did keep records, the records might not have survived.
RISEN: Well, we just don’t have a lot of records from antebellum plantations. They were either destroyed in fires, destroyed when the plantations broke up, destroyed when the Civil War ravaged their communities. Any number of reasons why we don’t have those documents. We don’t have a lot of documents on on anything. But more to the point this was not the kind of thing that people would have made a big deal about. You know, of course, at the time it was important that people knew which slaves were skilled at distilling and making whiskey and other products but at the same time it wasn’t something that you touted. No one sold or talked about—this is a whiskey made by enslaved people. It wasn’t something that was promoted.
TWILLEY: So, with so few traces left in the written records… what did Fawn end up being able to find out?
GRABER: It did take pretty much the whole town of Lynchburg, as we said. And from that effort, one of the first most important discoveries Fawn made is that the farm she bought, the farm that originally belonged to Dan Call, where Jack learned to make whiskey? It actually was the site of the original Jack Daniel’s distillery.
WEAVER: When Jack began his distillery, it was not in the current location.
TWILLEY: Even the Jack Daniel’s company didn’t realize this.
WEAVER: But that’s because the IRS redrew the lines and they didn’t have the documentation for earlier. Well, we dove in and we do. So once we acquired the farm—understand that the farm is where the original distillery number 7 was. It is where Nearest Green made the whiskey and it’s where he taught Jack. But it was also where Jack grew up. So in the farmhouse, in the home, as we began pulling wallpaper off of walls and pulling carpet up off of the floor and unveiling what it looked like when Jack was there, a part of the story was in those walls. A part of the story was in excavating.
GRABER: Fawn figured out the location of that very first distillery because part of the excavating had already been done.
WEAVER: And one of Jack’s descendants, we meet, and he brings over to the farm this—what I believe is the only known metal jug stencil that has survived that era. And it simply said “Jack Daniel,” no apostrophe, no s. And he brings it over and he says, this belongs to this house. And I said, what do you mean, it belongs to this home? And he says, for twenty years I’ve been out here with a metal detector. I come out. The owner would allow me to go. Every square inch of this 300 plus acres I have gone over with a metal detector and I have found a lot of things. And this was found nine inches underground from where the original distillery site was. And so that is what caused me to begin looking at, well, did Jack Daniels start down the road where everyone thinks it started or did it actually start on this property?
TWILLEY: And then Fawn gets a call from her team—remember, she’s roped in the whole town at this point.
WEAVER: And the local archives person, as I begin working with her, she starts going through all of the paperwork that they have, all the original books from the 19th century. And she calls me really excited one day and she says, Fawn, you have to get down here, you have to see this. So I run down to archives—well, I drove down but nonetheless—and I get down to archives and she shows me these three documents. And each of the documents had Jack Daniel’s signature on it. And it was him agreeing to lease the distillery on that property and the two acres around it and the spring and renaming the distillery Jack Daniel distillery.
TWILLEY: That was the proof Fawn was looking for. But it was more than just evidence of where Jack Daniel’s got started. Because Fawn had also proved that Nearest Green was the distiller on this property.
WEAVER: And so we then were able to start piecing together: well, if Jack Daniel distillery began on this property, that makes Nearest Green their first Master Distiller.
GRABER: This is a huge deal. Nearest wasn’t just Jack’s teacher—
WEAVER: What we uncovered is he was who we now know to be the first known African-American Master Distiller.
TWILLEY: This is Fawn’s biggest discovery. Clay didn’t know this, when he wrote his original article. The Jack Daniel’s company didn’t know this. It is, like Cynthia just said, a really big deal. It’s rewriting American whiskey history.
GRABER: And we’re going to get back to that, and the role of slaves in shaping what we know as American whiskey today. But first, Nearest Green. Who was he? As Fawn said, she couldn’t find ownership records of him, she couldn’t find letters about him. Fawn suspects that Dan Call rented him rather than owned him.
WEAVER: Number one: Dan Call had no slaves. You had to—for tax purposes—you had to pay taxes on your slaves. They were property. So he never lists ever having a slave. And so that was the first indication. The second indication is Nearest’s last name is Green. And the largest slave owner in that area was a man by the name of Townsend P. Green and his wife Mary A. Green. And by all accounts in the research, even though they never reported having a slave trading business for tax purposes, when I met with the conservator in Tennessee and we looked at all their business and how the slaves moved in and out, it seems as though they had a slave trading business that just they weren’t booking records for it. Let’s put it that way.
TWILLEY: And it would actually make a lot of sense that Dan Call would have rented Nearest rather than bought him. Dan needed a distiller. And a slave who was already a skilled distiller would have been very expensive to purchase.
WEAVER: Dan had to get out of the whiskey business very early. At 18 years old, he married a teetotaler. And he was a preacher. And to be on the property, it’s—at that time it was 338 acres. On the same property, you had his church on one side and you had his distillery on another side and then the triangle sort of met at his house. So he was able to be at his house and not see either the distillery or the church and so he kept these two separate worlds. But that didn’t work for his wife and it certainly didn’t work for the church. So he had to make a decision. Do you want to stay in the whiskey business or do you want to continue to be a preacher?
GRABER: Dan wanted to be a preacher, so he got out of the whiskey business.
WEAVER: But he wasn’t crazy enough to give up the income from the whiskey, so he allowed by all accounts the distillery to continue to be run by Nearest Green while he just sort of kept his hands clean.
TWILLEY: So that’s how Nearest came to be distilling on Dan Call’s farm. But as for where he came from before that—Fawn isn’t sure. She’s found some census records that seem to show that his parents came from Maryland, but that’s about it for his early life.
WEAVER: By all accounts, he could not read or write. Neither could his wife Harriet. And it isn’t until we get to his grandchildren that we begin seeing people that can read or write. They were very skilled at distilling but outside of that, no.
GRABER: But Fawn has managed to find out a fair amount about Nearest—from his descendants.
WEAVER: What we do know is what his children were like and what his grandchildren were like because we have pictures of all of them. And you have people still alive who knew them, who were raised by them. And so you get a really good picture of who Nearest was based on who his children were.
TWILLEY: One of the mysteries Fawn has been able to solve has to do with one of the very few photos that exists of Jack Daniel himself.
WEAVER: And so one of these two or three photos of him that he has in total, he’s sitting next to an African—well, technically he’s standing. You just can’t tell because he was only five foot two. Everyone else in the photo is sitting and Jack is actually standing. But you have Jack with the person to his right, an African-American, and no one knew who that African-American was. And as we dove in it was actually Nearest’s oldest living—or second-eldest living descendant—who was able to identify that as Nearest’s son, George, because he raised her.
TWILLEY: This photo—it’s kind of shocking for its time. To have a white man—a successful business owner—photographed side by side with a black man? Fawn has never seen anything like it. And so this one photo gives you a sense that there was something really unique about the position Nearest and his descendants occupied in the whiskey business and in the town.
GRABER: There are no photos of Nearest that Fawn has found. But, in addition to that photo of Nearest’s son, there are actually a lot of photos of many of his other descendants. And one thing that immediately jumps out in those photos is how successful Nearest must have been.
WEAVER: When you look at pictures of of Nearest’s children, pictures taken at the turn of the century, you’d have no idea they were the children of a slave. Zero clue. As a matter of fact, Jack Daniel’s historian and I were laughing not too long ago because when you look at the pictures of Jack’s family during that period of time and Nearest’s family during that period of time you would swear that Nearest’s family was the family with money. And Jack’s family was the family that were poor farmers. I mean, it just is a fascinating thing to look at. But Nearest’s entire family were elite society. They were—by all accounts, the wealth that Nearest acquired during his lifetime, immediately following the Civil War, he was the wealthiest African-American in the area, and he was wealthier than a lot of the whites in Lynchburg. And so that clearly passed down to his children because they owned a great deal of land, as did his grandchildren. And they had their own businesses. Many stayed in business with Jack Daniel. But many started their own and were successful and wealthy in their own right.
GRABER: So that’s what happened to his family, but what do we know about his relationship with Jack Daniel? Nearest taught Jack how to make whiskey. And then the Civil War ended in 1865. Slaves were emancipated that same year. Jack founded his distillery the next year—it was the very first registered distillery in the U.S. And he hired Nearest Green—who was now a free man—Jack hired Nearest to be his Master Distiller.
TWILLEY: And Nearest carried on working as Master Distiller for decades. So it was clearly a fruitful working partnership—but what was the actual relationship between the two men?
WEAVER: I have no doubt there was a mutual respect and a—and I know this because I have seen more documents that anyone needs to see in any lifetime to be convinced of something. But more so, it’s the way that their families continued to interact. And so there are enough of them that are still alive that I was able to piece that together. But I don’t believe it was just Nearest and Jack. I think that they may have been the catalyst for why an entire community was that way. But it was the whole town of Lynchburg. And of course you always have some knuckleheads, you always have some racists, but as a whole you had the blacks and the whites playing together, eating dinner together, spending time together and that was very very rare.
I remember speaking to one of the African-American elders in Lynchburg who was a teacher there for 40 years. So she was there during integration. And I said, what was it like for integration here? And her response startled me. She said it was a non-issue. Now I grew up having seen Brown versus Board of Education and them bringing in the National Guard and what happened and what that looked like, and I said, what do you mean it was a non-issue? I mean this town is called Lynchburg! And she says, it was a non-issue. I had black students and then I had black students and white students. And I said, well, I mean, how did the parents feel? How did the kids feel? And she said, well, we were all fine because the kids were already playing together before school, after school, and on the weekend. So as far as they were concerned they were now able to play together during school. And so that’s just not something you would expect from the South. Not at that period of time.
TWILLEY: Fawn uncovered all these details to help piece back together this forgotten story—the story of Nearest Green. But her point is, this story is bigger than one man—this is about a whole town. It’s also about the role of African Americans in the invention of American whiskey.
GRABER: Back to whiskey—how important were slaves in the whiskey making in America hundreds of years ago?
WEAVER: They played the biggest role. Outside of the Scots and the Irish bringing it in. And there’s some influences of the French and the English. But the Scots and the Irish are who brought it into America, but they weren’t doing the work. Why would you? You spend eight hundred dollars for a person for a lifetime to do the work for you. And that’s what they did.
RISEN: We know that enslaved people did a lot of work on farms obviously and did a lot of the dangerous work. Also a lot of the skilled work. And so it stands to reason that you would have certain people of that group selected out, trained, experienced as distillers. Nearest Green being, I think, even now the only one that we know by name.
GRABER: Clay has done a lot of whiskey research for his books and his articles, and he’s dug into what archival evidence still exists about the role of slaves in distilling in pre-Civil War America.
RISEN: The little bit of archival work I did turned up all kinds of examples of—you know, anecdotal—of trade: slaves being traded or sold or escaped runaway slaves being sought after specifically for their distilling skills. There is an ad that appeared in a newspaper in Lexington, Kentucky, in, I want to say, the 1820,s that was taken out by Andrew Jackson. And a slave had runaway from his plantation, the Hermitage, which is outside Nashville. And the first thing he said about him was this was one of my best distillers. And he was taking out an ad all the way in Lexington, which was even further away then than it is today. But it was so important to him to get this person back. And so the more you sort of scratch the surface the more you see, yes, actually, there really is this whole other story to tell and it’s just not being told. Although I think the opportunity around Nearest Green really opens the door to a reckoning with that past.
GRABER: So obviously slaves did play a major role in making whiskey in pre-Civil War America. But that leads to a bigger question: what type of influence might they have had on how that whiskey turned out, what it tasted like?
RISEN: One of the things that is interesting about American distilling is that like a lot of other things, like a lot of other American traditions, it’s an amalgamation of different, in this case, primarily European traditions but German, Irish, Scotch or Scottish. All these different traditions that come together—French—each with their own sort of distinct addition. But there are also a lot of X-factors.
TWILLEY: And one of those X-factors would have been the distilling traditions the enslaved people brought with them from Africa.
RISEN: A number of enslaved people would illicitly distill. They would have their own stills back in their part of a plantation and that was, depending on the slave owner, depending on the time, accepted or tolerated often as just a way of allowing people to sort of let off steam. So it’s certainly the fact—it’s certainly true that there was a a culture and a tradition of alcohol making, whether it’s brewing or distilling, that an enslaved person would have brought to an endeavor like what became the Jack Daniel’s distillery.
GRABER: So one of the things that made Tennessee and Kentucky whiskey unusual is that at the time, very early on in American whiskey-making history, distillers there used a technique called charcoal filtering.
TWILLEY: Just like the old, false origin story of Jack Daniel’s, which had a young Jack learning to distill from a white man—Dan Call, this charcoal filtering technique had an origin story that wasn’t exactly true either.
RISEN: Well the way that the story goes is that there was one plantation owner who developed it in the curiously specific year of I believe 1826. And there’s really no strong—I’d say not even any weak—archival support for that claim. It’s just been sort of the story that everyone has always told.
GRABER: But Clay says that actually many people were using this charcoal filtering technique before 1826 in many different places.
RISEN: Which lends itself to the idea that maybe this came from enslaved people who were bringing over a tradition of their own from West Africa, where it’s known that charcoal played an important role in cooking and in filtering liquids.
TWILLEY: Using charcoal filtering in whiskey making is called the Lincoln County process.
RISEN: So the basic point of the Lincoln County process is simply to filter the whiskey through charcoal, ostensibly as a way of removing impurities. Now you don’t need a whole lot of charcoal to do that. So what you have with the Lincoln County process so to speak is more charcoal than you need simply to filter. Jack Daniels filters theirs through the top of what’s essentially a giant vat filled with charcoal. And the whiskey then seeps down to the bottom and when it comes out that has essentially gone through the Lincoln County process.
GRABER: And this extended charcoal filtering changes the flavor of the whiskey. It strips out some flavor elements and makes it a little sweeter.
WEAVER: And so that was the process that Nearest was doing differently. It is the process that he taught Jack. And it is the process that is now known to be what we call Tennessee whiskey.
TWILLEY: We may never know exactly where the idea to charcoal filter raw whiskey came from, but both Clay and Fawn agree that it is likely it came from enslaved Africans.
WEAVER: If this process came from the slaves then truly the difference between bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey is authentically African-American and I think that’s incredibly exciting. So we’re still digging into that.
TWILLEY: Okay—so Fawn has done all this research. She’s discovered the original location of Jack Daniel’s distillery. More importantly, she’s discovered Nearest Green was the first Master Distiller of the first registered distillery in the US—and, thus also the first African American Master Distiller in the US. But there are still things she wants to figure out about Nearest Green.
WEAVER: One, I want to find his tombstone. So the original records of the cemetery where we believe he was buried were lost. And so everyone who was there—that was buried there prior to the 1900s—isn’t there anymore. I’d love to know did he pass away or did he simply retire? Is that why I lose him in 1884? There are a lot of questions I have that I still don’t have the answer to. And when you’re piecing together a story that is this important, I don’t think you stop looking for it until you have all the answers. Most of the answers we do have at this point. But there are still holes and I’d like to have those filled.
GRABER: But it’s obvious that, despite those holes, Fawn has found out a lot about Nearest, and about Jack Daniel’s. And the Jack Daniel’s company has now changed their own story, and the tours they give at the distillery in Lynchburg. Thanks to Fawn.
WEAVER: And when you go into Jack Daniel distillery, there is a really large display. I think they did—their designers did a great job. And they borrowed a lot of stuff from my research room. And so now when you go in and you—I was there not too long ago and I took some folks over to go for a tour. And I had to smile because when you buy tickets now they tell you, okay, go stand over in the area with Nearest Green. So people are looking around, going oh, and there’s this huge display that’s to Nearest Green. And so it is—I think it’s great that he is being honored there, at their distillery.
TWILLEY: But—Fawn’s not just relying on Jack Daniel’s to keep Nearest’s story alive. After all, that didn’t work out so well before. So, she’s writing a book. She’s working on a movie. And, of course, she’s making a whiskey.
WEAVER: Yeah. Well, Uncle Nearest premium whiskey was started ironically not at the suggestion of myself or anyone around me but at the suggestion of one of Jack’s descendants. And she had been the head of whiskey operations at Jack Daniel for 31 years. That’s all she’s ever known. She’ll tell you now, whiskey is in my blood. It’s what my family has done. And while we were doing the research on this she says, if you guys decide that you want to do a bottle to honor Nearest, I will come out of retirement and we will do it right. And once Nearest’s family said that’s what they wanted for his legacy, that’s what we did. And it’s easily the fastest growing whiskey—non-celebrity whiskey brand—possibly in American history. We shall see. But that’s what we’re tracking.
TWILLEY: Because of how long whiskey takes to age, Fawn is starting out by buying and blending someone else’s aged whiskey, while hers is still sitting in barrels. Clay’s tried these early bottles.
RISEN: Yeah, I think it’s good. It’s a really nice balanced whiskey. More to the point though, I’m really excited to see what she will come up with—what that whiskey will taste like when it actually comes out of the Nearest Green stills.
GRABER: Fawn doesn’t yet have any of Nearest’s family members helping make Uncle Nearest whiskey, but she’s working on it
WEAVER: I’m trying to coerce some of them to get into the whiskey business. I think I’m going to succeed in it. But their family as a whole has been out of it for so long, and so coming back into it. But in terms of their family involvement every aspect of what we do every single day involves them. We do not go out and and do anything they haven’t seen ahead of time. Everyone of Nearest’s descendants that is in college whether it’s for their Bachelor’s or the Master’s, we pay for that. And so we have an entire generation of Nearest’s family that we’ve taken under our wings. So hopefully some of them coming out with their Bachelor’s and Master’s will decide to be the next Master Distiller. But so far none of them has said yes.
TWILLEY: This struggle to recruit Nearest’s family—Fawn’s laughing and it is funny—funny haha, but also funny curious. The fact of Nearest being an African American Master Distiller— it’s not just that he was the first. It’s that he was pretty much also the last. He was incredibly unusual.
WEAVER: The irony is is with Uncle Nearest, with our whiskey, I’ve been looking for a Master Distiller who’s not white and who’s not male and you would not believe how difficult that is to find. And we literally have not seen an African-American Master Distiller before or after Nearest. Which I think is insane. And so to any African-Americans out there, maybe you might want to go to school, learn fermentation, a little bit of chemical background. It is a good idea. But we’ve not seen anyone outside of Nearest. I think that’s a part of why this is such a big story and why it’s such a big deal is you have an entire industry where he is the only person we’ve ever seen to run a major distillery in America.
GRABER: Fawn hopes this story will convince other African Americans to become Master Distillers. And Clay hopes it’ll prod other people to dig into history, like Fawn did, to find other stories, stories like Nearest’s.
RISEN: Where is that story in general in American whiskey? Where there is evidence that exists, it’s still at a local level. I think someone with an enterprising mind or the time to do it would would do well to dig into local—state and local archives to find places where these kinds of records still exist. They’ve just never been examined.
TWILLEY: Listeners, if you’re looking for a research topic, be our guest—you can thank us in the acknowledgments.
GRABER: There may be and likely are other stories, but these two men, they’re really special.
RISEN: These men came of age at a turning point in American history, of course, but also in whiskey history.
GRABER: They met when slavery was legal, they started a business after slaves became freed. This is also the beginning of more significant commercialization of whiskey, the first days of building a whiskey brand in America, instead of just making some liquor you might give or sell to your neighbors.
TWILLEY: Fawn is determined that Nearest Green’s part in the story of America’s first whiskey will never be forgotten again. That’s what her book is for, that’s what the movie is for, that’s why she’s building a whiskey brand. To make sure Nearest doesn’t get written out of the picture ever again.
GRABER: For Clay, this story is about more than just whiskey. It’s forced him to look back at his own upbringing.
RISEN: And, you know, it’s interesting. It’s not just the Nearest Green question. I think that having grown up in Tennessee, someone of my age in particular, you’re sort of taught, or you were taught not to think about certain questions. And so and I’m—you know, it’s just the way it is. And so I think it’s the kind of thing that someone, maybe an eagle-eyed outsider observer might come in and say: So this company is 150 years old. What’s—where are the enslaved people? Right? But it’s not something that—I mean, it took this story to really make me realize that it’s part of that rethinking of my own past.
TWILLEY: But again, this story is bigger than Fawn, or Clay, or even Nearest himself.
GRABER: This year, 2019, it marks the four-hundredth anniversary of the first slave who was brought to what was then the colonies. Four hundred years. There has never been a brand on a shelf ever that commemorated an African-American.
WEAVER: And that to me is remarkable and sad. And to have had the ability to change that is huge. And to know that moving forward there will at least always be one brand on the shelves that commemorates an African-American and the amount of work that we put in, our ancestors put in in the shadows—to bring that to the light is amazing.
TWILLEY: Huge thanks this episode to Fawn Weaver and to Clay Risen. We’ve got links at gastropod.com so you can can find more about Uncle Nearest whiskey as well as Clay’s articles and books.
GRABER: And we’ll be back in couple of weeks with a brand new episode. What should you eat to power your workout and your recovery?
TWILLEY: We live in a world full of Gatorade and Muscle Milk, but what does the science say? And who even invented these curious beverages.