Jack Daniel’s 151-year-old whiskey recipe is not a secret — it’s corn, barley and rye, processed and mixed in different proportions. Yet the art of distillery that Jack Daniels learned before he even tasted whiskey is another story, and there are two versions.
According to one, in the 1850s, when Jack was a boy, he worked for a distiller Dan Call, who also was a preacher. Call saw that young Daniels was capable, and taught the boy how to run his still.
Another one is less fancy. Daniel did not learn distilling from the preacher. His teacher was a slave named Nearis Green.
In the mid of 19th century distilleries were owned by white businessmen, but slaves did much of the work in whiskey production. One can say that it was a long lasting tradition — the founding father George Washington had six slaves that helped him run his rye whiskey distillery.
So when Jack Daniel, an orphan, started working for Dan Call, he introduced the boy to Green, who was Call’s main distiller at the time. In “Jack Daniel’s Legacy” the author Ben A. Green quotes Call himself: “Uncle Nearest is the best whiskey maker that I know of.”
Uncle Nearest started to teach Daniel how to make fine whiskey.
In 1865, the 13th Amendment ended slavery. By that time Daniel had become a seasoned distiller and opened his own still a year later. He recruited Uncle Nearest and two of his sons. A photo taken in the late 19th century shows a black man, allegedly Green’s son, sitting next to Daniel. Contemporaneous photos of other distilleries show black employees standing in the back row.
“Daniel did not see race as a barrier,” said Fawn Weaver, an author who spend over 2,500 hours to find proofs of Green’s legacy. She stated that the first person to whom Daniel came after he started his own company was his old mentor, Nearest Green.
Weaver also found out the true name of Green and the place he came from — Nathan Green from Maryland. It also turned out that distillery was just one of Green’s talents. He used to play fiddle at dance parties Lynchburg and sang with Fisk Jubilee Singers in nearby Nashville.
But Weaver’s the most exciting discovery was an article in Tennessee Historical Quarterly. It listed Nathan Green as Jack Daniel’s first head distiller.
In August 2017, the Brown-Forman Corporation, owner of the Jack Daniel’s Distillery and brand, recognized Green as their first head stiller — roughly 150 years after he made his first batch of Jack Daniel’s whiskey as a free man. In October, Green’s legacy was added to distillery tours.
Mike Veach, a whiskey history researcher, describes American distilling style as heavy influenced by German, Scots-Irish and English traditions. He also states that there’s a gap in the earlier history that can be explained by the work of enslaved distillers.
We will likely never know their names, except one of Nathan “Uncle Nearest” Green. The memory of him will be a credit deserved by other African slaves who worked at stills.
And there are people out there like Fawn Weaver that will ensure this memory will last:
“For me, my project ends when I can go anywhere around the world and say ‘Nearest Green’ and people know who he is.”
Featured Image: Jack Daniel’s Museum, The Water Rat Public House and Restaurant/Instagram