How an Enslaved Man Helped Jack Daniel Develop His Famous Whiskey

Jack Daniel’s is one of the most iconic American brands and the most popular spirits in the world. Yet while whiskey and its eponymous founder have become dominant names in American liquor lore, perhaps the person most responsible for its success – a slave named Nathan “Nearest” Green, who taught Jack Daniel the art of distilling whiskey – went unrecognized for over 150 years.

Researchers find that the role slaves played in early whiskey-making in the United States went beyond manual labor like collecting grain and building barrels. Distilling was notoriously laborious and tedious work, and some plantation owners, including George Washington and Andrew Jackson, used enslaved laborers to run their distilleries. According to American spiritual writer Fred Minnick, author of Bourbon: the rise, fall and rebirth of an American whiskey, slave auction brokers “noted distiller-trained slaves, many of whom previously worked on Caribbean sugar cane plantations and helped distill the sugar by-product, molasses, to create rum. These skill sets brought bounties to their owners and made them attractive to buyers. Overall, however, documentation of enslaved laborers’ contributions to early American whiskey production remains sparse, as few slaveholders saw fit to credit their achievements for posterity.

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