NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – A Black man born during slavery is now known as the Godfather of Tennessee whiskey.
With every pour of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, a legacy comes to life.
“I am hopeful that they know the story,” said Victoria Eady Butler. “They are raising a glass to history.”
It’s history she has flowing in her veins, as an awarding-winning master blender.
“I’m very fortunate to be Nearest Green’s great-great-granddaughter,” she said.
Born in 1820, Uncle Nearest’s given name was Nathan Green: a slave. After abolition, his family found a home in Lynchburg, Tennessee where word of his whiskey spread for miles.
“He put one more ingredient, and he filtered his whiskey through sugar maple charcoal, which is called the Lincoln County process. So, Nearest was making whiskey for a minister over in Lincoln County,” said Jason Morgan, tour guide and bourbon buff at the Nearest Green Distillery in Shelbyville, Tennessee.
“You never work a day in your life if you enjoy it, and I love telling the story,” said Morgan. “To be honest, I was working at Jack Daniels as a tour guide, and I was there when the story broke.”
The story “broke” to the rest of the country after it had been told for years by Butler’s grandmother.
“She made sure that the family knew the story of his relationship with Jack Daniel and she always said that her grandfather taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey,” she said. “The townspeople of Lynchburg knew their relationship and that Nearest was responsible for making whiskey for Jack Daniel and teaching him how to make whiskey. But when Fawn Weaver arrived in the town of Lynchburg, so much more followed.”
Fawn Weaver led a team of 20 history experts to uncover thousands of documents and renewed a legacy with the creation of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey in 2017.
“It became very clear that we don’t do Nearest Green justice, if we don’t cement his legacy,” Weaver told News 2 in a 2021 interview.
A legacy now known worldwide, but the folks in Lynchburg knew about it all along. According to the Nearest Green Foundation, “Nearest Green and his children were mentioned 50 times” in Jack Daniel’s official biography in 1967, which was “more times than nearly anyone else contained in the book.”
Though his memory is vivid to locals, there are no pictures of Nearest Green.
“For me, and probably most people that have seen that iconic picture with Nearest’s son seated to the right hand of Jack Daniel, I imagine that he looks something like that – a very strong, proud, humble Black man who worked really hard,” said Butler.
That hard work is now known by everyone who visits the distillery’s 300 acre property off Highway 231 in Shelbyville, Tennessee.
“I came over here as a kid, my dad would come over here, if you wanted to offload a horse,” said Morgan.
The property has a history of its own, as visitors can still see the stalls from when Tennessee walking horses used to be sold there.
“Nearest Green never made whiskey here, but the fact that we have a home place for the brand that honors him, it means everything,” said Butler. “I truly believe that his spirit lives on here. There is a certain feeling that I get when I drive through the gate of this property. I think he is beyond proud of what we have done, and what we are continuing to do to shine a light on his contribution to the spirits industry and ensuring that his legacy is never forgotten.”
Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey was the most awarded American whiskey of 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022. It surpassed $100 million in sales last year.
Butler was named Master Blender of the Year four times, and she’s the first person of color with this honor.
She previously worked as an analytical manager for the Regional Organized Crime Information Center in Nashville. After a brief retirement she went to work in administration for the Nearest Green Foundation before transitioning to master blender.
“Those awards and accolades that I have been fortunate to receive in the last few years, I’m extremely proud of that. But I’m more proud, I think, of the team that Fawn Weaver put together,” she said. “We are extremely diverse, we are inclusive, we are a family.”
That family is now working to share a story once lost in time by honoring his legacy and becoming a household name.
“What I tell people when you buy whiskey or when you drink whiskey is that it needs to be approachable. It needs to be something you do want to reach for,” said Morgan. “I think we’re producing is one of those brands that you love. In all the whiskey I have at home, and I have quite a bit of it, I want you to reach for Uncle Nearest.”
The company launched the Uncle Nearest HBCU Old-Fashioned challenge this year to raise $1 million dollars. From now until March 31st consumers can participate in the challenge in one of four ways. Click this link for more information.