How an Enslaved Distiller Was Written Out of Jack Daniel's History

Uncovering the true story of a legendary American brand

A person holds a bottle to a tapped barrel of whiskey.
Mark Humphrey / AP

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.”

Risen was intrigued, so he traveled to Lynchburg, Tennessee, and wrote an article for The New York Times, tying what little was known about Nearest Green to the larger erasure of enslaved people’s role in American whiskey making. “I could sort of sketch the outlines,” he said—but he felt as if there was more to the story than he had been able to uncover. In the article, he wrote that “Nearis [sic] Green’s story—built on oral history and the thinnest of archival trails—may never be definitively proved.”

Fawn Weaver, however, took those words as a challenge. After reading Risen’s story, Weaver decided to dedicate the next two years to filling in those outlines and finding that definitive proof. “For me, as an African American, it was mind-boggling,” she said. “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.”

This episode, we follow Weaver as she tracks down Green’s descendants and pieces together the true story of his relationship with Jack Daniel—a story that the Jack Daniel Distillery now says it is “proud to have as part of [its] rich history.” Ultimately, her research reveals that Nearest Green not only taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey, but was the first master distiller for Jack Daniel’s Distillery, and thus also the first African American master distiller on record in the United States. But how did Green get left out of the narrative? And what was his role in shaping the unique flavor of Tennessee whiskey? Listen in now to hear this long-forgotten story that lies at the heart of one of America’s most iconic brands.

This post appears courtesy of  Gastropod.