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Nathan ‘Nearest’ Green: How an Enslaved Man Helped Jack Daniel Develop His Famous Whiskey

Jack Daniel’s stands as one of the most iconic American brands and most popular spirits in the world. Yet while the whiskey and its eponymous founder have become dominant names in American liquor lore, the person perhaps most responsible for its success — an enslaved man named Nathan ‘Nearest’ Green, who taught Jack Daniel the art of whiskey distillation — went unacknowledged for more than 150 years. More than one hundred and sixty years ago, in the hills above Lynchburg in Tennessee, there was a farm owned by a young preacher man called Dan Call that still stands today. Reverend Call had a side hustle down the road on his farm: a small whiskey distillery, which made a silky smooth, maple-sweet whiskey that was highly regarded by all that tasted it. The man who distilled the whiskey was a black slave named Nathan Green, known affectionately as Uncle Nearest, and he brought with him a special technique of filtering that he had learned back home in Africa. In this process, whiskey is filtered through sugar maple tree charcoal chips before being placed in casks for aging, a technique food historians believed was inspired by similar charcoal filtering techniques used to purify water and foods in West Africa. This method became known as the famous ‘Lincoln method’ and it’s still used today.

Little is known about Green’s early years; beyond that he was born in Maryland in 1820. It’s not clear, for instance, if he was born into bondage or was enslaved later in life. What is clear is that, by the mid-1800s, Green had gained renown as a skilful whiskey distiller in Lincoln County, Tennessee — so much so that his enslavers, the Landis & Green company, often rented Green out to area farms and plantations eager to partake of 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 young white orphan looking for work, found his way to the property of Dan Call. While working as a labourer on Call’s farm, Daniel took an ardent interest in Call’s distillery. Eventually, after much badgering from the young Daniel, Call introduced him to Green, who he called “the best whiskey maker that I know of,” according to a 1967 biography, Jack Daniel’s Legacy. He instructed the enslaved man to teach the young boy his distilling magic.

Green taught Daniel the sugar maple charcoal filtering process, a universally accepted critical step in the making of Tennessee whiskey. The process imparted a unique smoothness of flavour that set Jack Daniel’s whiskey apart from its competitors. As years passed, Daniel continued to learn from Green, building a friendship with his mentor and eventually perfecting the Lincoln County Process

Jack Daniel, with mustache and white hat, is shown at his distillery in Tennessee in the late 1800s. The man to his right could be Nearest Green, an enslaved man who helped teach Jack Daniel how to make whiskey, or one of Green’s sons. (Credit: FLHC11/Alamy Photo)

Once the war ended and emancipation came, Daniel bought Call’s distillery, renaming it after himself, though he didn’t use his given name; he preferred what the locals called him: not Jasper Daniel, but Jack Daniel. He asked Nathan to be his very first Master Distiller, a position which he happily accepted. The men worked together until Nathan retired.

Daniel eventually opened a larger distillery on a nearby plot of land where Nathan Green’s sons Lewis, Eli and George also began work. Their employment began a tradition of more than seven generations of the Green family working either for or with the Jack Daniels brand.

So why, despite Green’s role, and Daniel’s seeming admiration for him, were his contributions obscured?

Early company record-keeping was notoriously spotty, making it easy for facts and histories to become obscured and forgotten.

“I don’t think it was ever a conscious decision” to leave the Greens out of the company’s story,” Phil Epps, the global brand director at Brown-Forman, told The New York Times in a 2016 interview. Brown-Forman bought 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 that conscious decision to include Green.

In 2016, as the brand’s 150th anniversary approached, the company began gathering ideas on how to finally pay its due to Green. It vowed — via distillery tours,

social media posts, and official company histories — to begin acknowledging Green’s role.

Fawn Weaver, a researcher and businesswoman, visited the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Tennessee after learning about Green and Jack Daniel’s plans to honour him. After going on three distillery tours, and not hearing a single mention of Nearest Green, Weaver threw herself into researching his life and work, gathering more than 10,000 documents that verified — and expanded on — Green’s importance to the Jack Daniel’s brand.

Her findings: Green not only taught Daniel how to distil, he also began to work with him in a partnership after Emancipation and became (through designation by Jack Daniel himself) what is believed to be the first-ever Black master distiller in America. Weaver also discovered that Green’s given enslaved name was Nathan and that Nearest was a name he likely adopted after Emancipation.

Jack Daniel's company historian speaking in the old office of company founder Daniel on the grounds of the Jack Daniel's distillery, pointing to the photograph showing Daniels and Green, 2018. Kyle Dean Reinford/picture alliance/Getty Images

By 2017, after Weaver’s research gained national attention, Jack Daniel’s parent company began committing to its earlier promises by recognising Green as the brand’s first Master Distiller on its company website, giving pride of place to Jack Daniel and Nearest Green’s legacy-defining partnership.

In October 2017, they added his legacy to their tours. The same year, The Nearest Green Foundation announced the inaugural class of descendants receiving full scholarships to college and grad school to continue their ancestor's legacy of excellence. The Foundation is funded by the sales of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey and the sales of Jack Daniel's official biography, Jack Daniel's Legacy.

Aaron Randle

History Channel

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