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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A slave distiller shares his knowledge with a young orphan
Little is known about Green’s early years, beyond the fact that he was born in Maryland in 1820. It is unclear, for example, whether he was born into slavery or enslaved. later in life. What is clear is that by the mid-1800s Green had achieved fame as a skilled distiller of whiskey in Lincoln County, Tennessee, so much so that his slavers, the Landis & Green, often rented Green out to area farms and plantations. to share his whiskey making skills. It was in this capacity that Green met young Jasper “Jack” Daniel and forged what would become an iconic partnership.
Around 1850, Daniel, a 7-year-old orphan in search of work and escape from a difficult family life, found his way to the estate of Dan Call, a Lynchburg preacher, grocer and distiller who had previously been credited for teaching Daniel how to distill whiskey. While working as a laborer on Call’s farm, Daniel took a keen interest in Call’s distillery. Eventually, after much nagging young Daniel, Call introduced him to Green, whom he called “the finest whiskey maker I know”, according to a 1967 biography, Jack Daniel’s Legacy. He asked the slave to teach the young boy his distillation magic.
Green taught Daniel the “Sugar Maple Charcoal Filtering” (known today as the Lincoln County Process), a universally accepted critical step in the making of Tennessee whiskey. With this process, the whiskey is filtered through charcoal shavings before being placed in casks for aging, a technique that food historians say was inspired by similar techniques of filtering with charcoal. charcoal used to purify water and food in West Africa. The process imparted a unique sweetness of flavor that sets Jack Daniel’s whiskey apart from its competitors.
Over the years, Daniel continued to learn from Green, forming a friendship with his mentor and eventually perfecting the Lincoln County process and selling his whiskey in Lynchburg and surrounding towns. By the start of the Civil War, Daniel had become a skilled salesman, peddling his sweet brand of Tennessee whiskey to soldiers and cementing his varietal as the most popular in the region.
Once the war was over and emancipation came, Daniel bought the Call distillery, renaming it in his honor. Soon after, Daniel opened a larger distillery on nearby land where Green’s sons Lewis, Eli and George also started working. Their employment began a tradition of over seven generations of the Green family working for or with the Jack Daniels brand.
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Discover the history of Nearest Green
So why, despite Green’s role and Daniel’s apparent admiration for him, have his contributions been obscured?
At first, the company’s record keeping was notoriously spotty, making it easy to obscure and forget facts and stories.
“I don’t think it was ever a conscious decision ‘to leave the Greens out of corporate history,'” said Phil Epps, global brand director at Brown-Forman. The New York Times in a 2016 interview. Brown-Forman purchased Jack Daniel’s from the Daniel family in 1965 for $20 million (about $190 million in 2022 dollars).
But it took time before the company made the conscious decision to include Green.
In 2016, as the brand’s 150th anniversary approached, the company began to gather ideas on how to finally pay its due green. He pledged, through distillery tours, social media posts and official company histories, to begin acknowledging Green’s role.
Fawn Weaver, a researcher and businesswoman, visited Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Tennessee after learning of Green and Jack Daniel’s plans to honor her. After making three distillery tours and hearing no mention of Green, Weaver embarked on research into his life and work, collecting more than 10,000 documents that verified and expanded on Green’s significance to the Jack Daniel’s brand.
His Discoveries: Green not only taught Daniel how to distill, he also began working with him in a partnership after emancipation and became (by designation by Jack Daniel himself) what is thought to be the whole first black master distiller in America. Weaver also discovered that the slave name given to Green was Nathan and that Nearest was a name he probably adopted after emancipation.
In 2017, after Weaver’s research garnered national attention, Jack Daniel’s parent company began delivering on its earlier promises by acknowledging Green as the brand’s first Master Distiller on its website, giving prominence to to the defining partnership between Jack Daniel and Nearest Green.