A while ago I explained in “Lost History of Knob Creek” how American history of whiskey production is tied to slavery.
In particular, Jack Daniel took his recipe from emancipated slaves even though he used his own name for the brand.
Now the man who taught Jack Daniel, “Nearis” Green, is getting his own brand. Proceeds from the sale of this new whiskey are going to fund college education of master distiller Nearest’s descendants
See if you can trace how the story originally flowed from “never a secret” to “embrace, tentatively” to “gauzy and unreliable” to “never be definitively proved”…
Daniel, the company now says, didn’t learn distilling from Dan Call, but from a man named Nearis Green — one of Call’s slaves.
This version of the story was never a secret, but it is one that the distillery has only recently begun to embrace, tentatively, in some of its tours, and in a social media and marketing campaign this summer.
Frontier history is a gauzy and unreliable pursuit, and Nearis Green’s story — built on oral history and the thinnest of archival trails — may never be definitively proved.
Then a successful writer comes onto the scene and quickly realizes there is a market for trust and ethics, scientifically eroding the structural white supremacist deception and lies that intentionally obscure roots of American innovation.
…when she got to Lynchburg, she found no trace of Green. “I went on three tours of the distillery, and nothing, not a mention of him,” she said.
Rather than leave, Ms. Weaver dug in, determined to uncover more about Green and persuade Brown-Forman to follow through on its promise to recognize his role in creating America’s most famous whiskey. She rented a house in downtown Lynchburg, and began contacting Green’s descendants, dozens of whom still live in the area.
Scouring archives in Tennessee, Georgia and Washington, D.C., she created a timeline of Green’s relationship with Daniel, showing how Green had not only taught the whiskey baron how to distill, but had also gone to work for him after the Civil War, becoming what Ms. Weaver believes is the first black master distiller in America. By her count, she has collected 10,000 documents and artifacts related to Daniel and Green, much of which she has agreed to donate to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
So much for the thinnest of archival trails. Congratulations to Ms. Weaver and the Green family for restoring and preserving American history.
Jack Daniel has since updated their marketing to point out how kind they think they were being to the black men they erased from history.
On his farm, Call had a still and Jack quickly took interest in it. Now this was back in the days prior to the Civil War and Emancipation and the Call still was under the watch and care of an enslaved man named Nathan “Nearest” Green. The Reverend Call and his distiller, Nearest, taught Jack how to make whiskey. Most of that mentoring, however, fell to Nearest who worked side by side with Jack and taught the young distiller what would become his life’s passion.
After the Civil War, Reverend Call’s congregation and wife gave the preacher an ultimatum: walk away from making whiskey or walk away from his work as a minister. Call made the decision to sell his business to Jack. And so Nearest, now a free man, was hired by Jack and became the very first head distiller – or what we’d call a master distiller today – of the Jack Daniel Distillery. While slave labor was a part of life in the South prior to the Civil War’s close, Jack Daniel not only never owned slaves but he worked side-by-side with them as a hired hand to Dan Call. When it came time after the war to establish his own distillery, Jack’s crew were all hired men.
Nearest would work with Jack as his first master distiller until Jack moved his operation to the Cave Spring Hollow sometime after 1881. There, Nearest’s sons George and Eli and his grandsons Ott, Jesse and Charlie continued the Green family tradition, working at Jack’s distillery in the Cave Spring Hollow.
More than 150 years have passed since Nearest and Jack first began making whiskey together, and, to this day, there has always been a member of the Green family working at the Jack Daniel Distillery.
Bottom line here?
Nobody had heard of Green because Daniel took credit and all the profit for himself despite obviously taking advantage of slaves and freemen alike because they were black.
Statements like “While slave labor was a part of life in the South prior to the Civil War’s close” are completely bogus. Two important points here:
1) Saying “back in the days prior to the Civil War and Emancipation” does NOT excuse slavery or make it acceptable in any way. The Colony of Georgia had abolished slavery in 1735 and the American revolution was in part fought to expand slavery. Indeed, the colony of Vermont had abolished slavery in 1777. Philadelphia passed a 1780 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery and George Washington went out of his way to find loopholes just so he could continue slavery. American legends such as President Grant however had no slaves when the Civil War started because he already had ended the practice on his own accord (setting free the only slave he ever had, a man “gifted” to him by his wife’s father). General Burnsides as well had seen his father emancipate their slaves. There are many examples like this and the point is anyone claiming “part of life” phrasing for slavery is engaging in toxic apologist nonsense.
2) Slavery was all over America because its proponents had been violently forcing it to continue, yet it had been naturally ending in the North anyway for a long time (like the rest of the world). Those viciously attacking anyone who dared speak of freedom and liberty in America, censoring black voices, thus could also be called pro-slavery. Texas seceded from Mexico on a singular (“Lone Star”) agenda to violently expand slavery (white immigrants brought slaves into abolitionist Mexico and then violently seized the land to form a new slavery state). And while there were many brave Americans (e.g. Lovejoy, murdered in 1837 by violent slaveholder mobs) who stood up to such expanding violence, people who fought to free black men from the tyranny of America… Jack Daniel was not one of them. His legacy is censoring black voices to present their ideas as his own.
Making whiskey together? Jack was learning, taking from Nearest. Working side-by-side with slaves and taking credit for their work is in no way the same as freeing them, leading them to freedom.
While it’s tempting to tell white insecurity mobs today that their bourbon was invented by black Americans, this particular story rings hollow. We wouldn’t have to buy Uncle Nearest brand today instead if Jack Daniel had done the right thing.