KRWG

Nearest Green, The Man Who Taught Jack Daniels About Whiskey

Sep 3, 2017
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, here is one more story about what's behind a name. We're talking about Jack Daniel. Jack Daniel's a household name in the United States. For some people, Jack Daniels is almost a synonym for Tennessee whiskey, but the name Nearest Green? Not so much. But as it turns out, Jack Daniel likely learned the art of distillery from Nathan Nearest Green sometime in the 1850s in rural Tennessee.

Green was born into slavery. He was hired to teach Daniel. And upon emancipation, he went to work for Jack Daniel's company, along with two of his sons. But for most of the company's history, Green's contribution was not mentioned until last year, when the company announced it would incorporate Nearest Green into their official narrative.

The story was picked up by The New York Times, and that's where Fawn Weaver comes in. She is an author and a real estate investor. And she actually moved to Lynchburg, Tenn., where the company is based. And she spent much of the past year interviewing Green's descendants, combing through archives and filling in the missing pieces in the Nearest Green story. We wanted to hear more about that, so I'm joined now by Fawn Weaver from Nashville Public Radio in Nashville, Tenn. Fawn Weaver, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

FAWN WEAVER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: What was it that sparked your interest in knowing more about Mr. Green? I mean, actually, to be honest, it sounds a little bit like you were annoyed that he wasn't getting his due.

WEAVER: I won't say that I was annoyed because I didn't know at the time he wasn't getting his due. So I was in Singapore with my husband, and it was on the front page of The New York Times International Edition there. And first of all, if you are in Singapore and you're reading a story about a slave who may have taught the person who began the largest American whiskey brand in history, you want to know a little bit more.

If you're an author and someone like me, where not only do I like to write a great story, but I also like it to really permeate the community and those around me but also to spread around the world. So this was one of those rare stories that I thought, gosh, if there's something more to this than what is being said in The New York Times, this could be an incredible story. But what I thought it was and what it was are two different things.

MARTIN: So after reading about Nathan Nearest Green, you decided to actually move to Lynchburg to uncover more about his story. Now, that seems like a pretty drastic step to satisfy your curiosity. I don't know.

WEAVER: Well, I tell you what, it did not go quite in that order. So I planned on going to Lynchburg for four days. And my husband - trying to convince him to go to a city in the South called Lynchburg and we're both black, it was not easy. But when I got there and I began speaking to people, I realized that the story of Nearest Green, although no one had been talking about it for at least the last 40, 50 years - I realized once I got there, the only way people were going to share the story with me is if they felt safe. And the only way people in a small town feel safe with an outsider is that outsider becomes an insider. And that's why I moved to Lynchburg.

MARTIN: One of the things that the Times story pointed out is that this story had been kind of an open secret among descendants and among people in that area, but it wasn't something that was promoted as part of the company's history. Why do you think that is?

WEAVER: You know, I don't know. What I will say is when I arrived there, I thought that there would be few people who knew who Nearest was. And I happened to be getting a pedicure, of all things. And the woman in the nail salon, it took me a full half-hour to really build up to ask this question because if you think about it, I'm an African-American going into an almost all-white town to investigate a story on a slave who's been left out of the history of their town hero. So I wasn't quite sure what to expect.

And the nail salon, the woman, I look - I finally look at her. And I said, so when you heard the story or you read it in The New York Times about the slave who taught Jack Daniel, I mean, what was your thought? What was the thought of everyone or the mood in this town? And she looks at me with the most blank face. And I said, how did people react? And she says, well, we didn't. We've always known. So it wasn't a secret in Lynchburg. It just somehow never left Lynchburg.

MARTIN: So, you know, this comes at a time when there's, as we said, a lot of focus on Confederate monuments and why they are where they are and what they are for. Does this story in some way fit into that story? Is it part of that? And why do you think this is so important that this be known?

WEAVER: I think the reason why this fits in is for a reason completely different than what most people may think. The relationship between Jack Daniel and Nearest Green was a great one. Nearest Green was not Jack's slave. Jack did not have any slaves. Nearest Green was Jack's mentor. And Jack's descendants and Nearest's descendants, not only were they friends, they lived side by side. They worked side by side. There was not a distinguishment between the two.

Even though you're talking about the late 1800s, early 1900s, so if you can picture that in your mind, you have blacks and whites living side by side in equality. So I think when we look at what's going on with the Confederate monuments, when you look at Charlottesville, putting that in context with what I have been uncovering over the last 10 months is pretty phenomenal because if we can somehow figure out how to do in the rest of America what Jack and Nearest and their descendants learned how to do in Lynchburg, we've got hope.

MARTIN: Now, you've actually started bottling and selling a whiskey called Uncle Nearest 1856. Tell me about that.

WEAVER: Yes, hundred proof, born and raised in Tennessee. So when I met here in Nashville with Nearest's descendants, I said, what is the one thing that you believe that should be done to honor Nearest Green? And they essentially said, we believe that his name should live on his own bottle. And there was someone who we knew very well from Lynchburg - ironically, a descendant not of Nearest but of Jack - and who had been in the Tennessee whiskey business for about 31 years before she retired. And when we first began researching, she says, I've always known about Nearest. And I would love to be able to help with any project you might do.

And so after I met with the descendants, I called her. And I said, I have no idea how we could do this, but this is what they want. And if you can help us to do this, I will figure out how to raise all the money that will be needed to make it happen. And essentially, we reached out to every investor, every friend that we knew, told them the story, said this is what we believe should happen to truly honor him around the world.

And you had so many people step up to the plate and say, we're in. It debuted in Nashville three weeks ago. I think we're already in 150 stores, and they keep selling out. So it is very clear that people care about honoring Nearest Green, and I could not be more thrilled.

MARTIN: Fawn Weaver is an author and entrepreneur. She's been researching the history of Nearest Green, who taught distilling to Jack Daniel. And she joined us from WPLN in Nashville, Tenn. Fawn Weaver, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WEAVER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.