Back in 1866, Jack Daniel’s became the first registered distillery in the United States; today, it’s the top-selling American whiskey in the world. For much of the brand’s 150-plus years, the story went that the young Jack Daniel learned his trade from a pastor named Dan Call. In reality, he was taught to distill by an enslaved African, Nearest Green, whose contributions had been written out of history. In this episode of the Gastropod podcast, listen in as Fawn Weaver, the entrepreneur who has made rediscovering Green’s story her business, and Clay Risen, the whiskey expert whose 2016 article in The New York Times launched Weaver’s quest, tell us the true story of Nearest Green and Jack Daniel—and of American whiskey.
In June 2016, Fawn Weaver was in Singapore, browsing an international edition of The New York Times, when a headline caught her eye: “Jack Daniel’s Embraces a Hidden Ingredient: Help From a Slave.” The article was written by Clay Risen, who had originally been tipped off to the story by a press person from the brand’s parent company, looking to generate coverage around the 150th anniversary of Jack Daniel’s. Risen, who grew up in Tennessee and had recently published a book called American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirit, realized that at some point in his research, he had read that an enslaved person was involved in the company’s founding—but the story didn’t have much more detail than that. “It wasn’t a secret,” Risen told Gastropod, “but it wasn’t something that people talked about in any real way.”