On a June day in 2016, while vacationing in Singapore, Fawn Weaver was skimming the front page of The New York Times when a headline caught her eye: “Jack Daniel’s Embraces a Hidden Ingredient: Help From a Slave.” The story detailed the Tennessee whiskey brand’s admission that a young Jack Daniel had learned to distill not from a white preacher named Dan Call, as it had long maintained, but from a man named Nearest Green, who worked as a slave on Call’s property.
Weaver, an African-American author and real estate investor from Los Angeles, was moved by the notion of a hidden history at the root of America’s most valuable spirits brand. At home, she bought a biography of Jack Daniel, written in 1967 by a journalist named Ben A. Green (no relation to Nearest), and in it found Nearest and his descendants mentioned some 50 times. Weaver became deeply curious about how, and why, they had since vanished from history. She discovered that she and Ben Green shared a birthday—September 5th—which was also, supposedly, Jack Daniel’s. “There was no escaping the birthday thing,” Weaver recalls, implying a cosmic angle to the story’s magnetism. Who was Nearest Green? And what, exactly, was his role in establishing one of America’s most iconic brands? She felt herself called to unravel the thread.
Weaver’s 40th birthday was approaching, and her husband, Keith, proposed a trip to Paris. Fawn had other plans. For her first book, a 2014 New York Times bestseller titled Happy Wives Club, Weaver had traversed six continents to interview women in search of the secret to marital bliss; had Antarctica been home to any happy couples, she would have traveled there too. Now, she was selling Keith on a birthday trip to Lynchburg, Tennessee, the home of the Jack Daniel’s distillery, for a few days of research that might lead to a new book about the slave behind America’s best-known whiskey.
Three years later, the Weavers are still in Lynchburg, living in the carriage house of a Greek Revival home once owned by Jack Daniel’s sister. Keith commutes weekly to his job as an executive at Sony Pictures Entertainment in Los Angeles. Fawn, having pieced together the story of Nearest Green from hundreds of interviews and thousands of artifacts, has set about doing anything she can to restore his place in Tennessee whiskey history. Already, she has produced a short film and built a memorial to Green at the local cemetery, and she says a book and a major motion picture are on the way. And then there’s the whiskey. Less than a year after arriving in Lynchburg, Weaver began bottling Uncle Nearest 1856, which has since become one of the fastest-growing independent spirit brands in American history.
I meet Weaver on a warm summer day in Lynchburg at the Dan Call farm, the spot where Jack Daniel learned to distill: ground zero for Tennessee whiskey lore. When the Weavers arrived here, in 2016, the property was for sale, but it hadn’t attracted much interest—the farmhouse was covered in vinyl siding and faux stone panels, obscuring its historic appeal. Where others saw a money pit, the Weavers, who had bought and renovated many houses in the Los Angeles area as investment properties, saw a fixer-upper. They made an offer on their fourth day in town. “We had no idea what we were going to do with it,” Weaver recalls. Maybe a bed-and-breakfast? They put a crew to work pulling up shag carpeting and peeling back layers of wallpaper, stripping the house to its antebellum bones.
Weaver, 42, slim, perfectly coiffed, and dressed in jeans, tall black boots, and an emerald-green blouse, guides me around the home, pointing out the hand-painted wallpaper clinging to the walls in places, scrawled with snippets of 19th-century graffiti. A faded barrel stencil painted on an upstairs wall, dated 1860, helped her confirm how long ago whiskey was being made here. In the end, Weaver couldn’t bear to renovate the place, and maintains the house as a kind of private historic site (although it isn’t currently open to the general public, guests of the Uncle Nearest brand, such as bartenders and restaurant owners, come for tours). There are no surviving pictures of Nearest Green, but around the house, Weaver has hung photos she gathered of his descendants: fine-looking young men in starched military uniforms, handsome women in hats and pearls.
Weaver has a force-of-nature quality about her, a reverberating laugh, steely green eyes, and the kind of polite but persistent demeanor that is difficult to refuse. When she first arrived in Lynchburg, she was surprised to find that Brown-Forman, Jack Daniel’s parent company, hadn’t followed through on its stated plans to reframe the brand’s history to include Green. Nothing about him in the visitor’s center, no mention of him on tours. Undeterred, she called on local descendants, beginning with the one identified in the Times story she had read.
From there, Weaver scoured county archives, dusty attics, the state museum, and IRS records in Atlanta, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. She talked with archaeologists and genealogists. Every Friday, she ran an ad in the Lynchburg paper soliciting locals who might share any documents they had related to the Greens. She traveled to St. Louis and Nashville and Indianapolis, taking oral histories from over a hundred descendants of both Green and Daniel. Finally, she gathered her findings at the Dan Call house, covering every surface of a makeshift office with papers and photographs.
What emerged was a fuller, if still incomplete, picture of Nearest Green and his role in the early days of Tennessee whiskey. Nathan Green—called “Nearest” or “Uncle Nearest” by anyone who knew him—was born in Maryland around 1820, according to Census records, and made it to southwest Tennessee sometime before 1856. He was rented by Dan Call from a local slave owner, probably for his skill at distilling. He had a wife named Harriet and 11 children. He played the fiddle and taught Jack Daniel, who was roughly 26 years his junior, to dance.
After Green became free, in 1865, he stayed on as a paid employee running Dan Call’s distillery—a small commercial operation that sold whiskey locally, by the barrel. Weaver uncovered documents and artifacts to show that beginning in 1875, the distillery was leased to Jack Daniel—meaning the birthplace of Jack Daniel’s distillery was not its current location, near downtown Lynchburg, but at the foot of a mountain stream in Weaver’s backyard. Green worked for Daniel as his head distiller, making him the first African-American master distiller on record.
Weaver says Green appears in tax records until 1884, when Daniel moved the distillery to its current location. That’s when the trail ends. The 1890 Census was destroyed in a fire, and Green isn’t included in the one taken in 1900. His son, George Green, by all accounts Jack Daniel’s closest friend, went to work with Daniel at the new distillery, as did his grandchildren. The distillery has employed at least one of Green’s descendants ever since.
Scant as the information on Green may be, what is now known about his role in establishing America’s first licensed distillery—and the country’s most valuable spirits brand today—represents the most nuanced portrait yet of any single African American in the early days of American distilling. Slave rolls indicate that enslaved men were commonly involved in the making of spirits; it was hot, dirty, and dangerous work, with scalding accidents and still explosions commonplace. Runaway slave ads identify certain slaves as skilled distillers, which suggests that they contributed not just the manual labor, but also the expertise. “The challenge with slaves is it’s basically like tracking cattle,” Weaver laments. Of the hundreds of enslaved men involved in American distilling in the 19th century, Nearest Green is the only name we know. “Green is this hinge figure, because he distilled as an enslaved person and as a master distiller,” says Clay Risen, the author of the original New York Times story on the subject. “He’s identified, but only because of what he did as a free person. Had he not, we might never have heard of him.”
Confronted by Weaver’s research, Brown-Forman decided to formally incorporate Green into the Jack Daniel’s narrative in the spring of 2017, acknowledging him as the brand’s first master distiller and featuring his contributions on distillery tours. Weaver helped put together a Nearest Green exhibit—a map of the Dan Call farm, a short history of Nearest’s relationship with Daniel, photos of his descendants, and a wall-sized family tree—that enjoys pride of place in the lobby of the visitor’s center, which a quarter of a million whiskey enthusiasts pass through each year. “I’m happy they did it, but what’s more important to me is how the Green family felt,” Weaver says. “And they felt like kings and queens.”
In Lynchburg, a sleepy town of 6,400 with a single traffic light, residency tends to be measured in decades, if not generations. A Southern drawl has crept into Weaver’s voice, but it doesn’t do much to disguise her L.A. hustle, which has hit the town like a whirlwind. After scooping up the Dan Call property, the Weavers bought the Tolley House, a bed-and-breakfast once owned by Jack Daniel’s sister, which they spruced up and recently reopened. They also purchased four acres of land in downtown Lynchburg, with plans to turn it into a memorial park in Green’s name.
The idea for a whiskey came a few months after Weaver arrived in Tennessee. “It wasn’t until I was interviewing Nearest’s family in Nashville, and I asked them what was the one thing they hoped would happen for Nearest,” Weaver recalls. “They said, ‘We think his name should be on a bottle.’” Weaver was a relative whiskey novice, raised by teetotalers in Pasadena, California, where her father, Frank Wilson, was a songwriter and producer for Motown Records (and, later, a born-again preacher). She didn’t know where to begin with a project like that. But she knew someone who did.
The Weavers happened to have bought the Dan Call farm through a realtor named Sherrie Moore, a tall, blond, gregarious Lynchburg native— and a distant descendant of Jack Daniel. Before she sold houses, Moore had worked for more than three decades at Jack Daniel’s, eventually as head of whiskey production, one of the distillery’s most senior positions (Lynchburg, the Weavers came to realize, was a very small town). “I told Sherrie that if she would come out of retirement, I would raise the money,” Weaver said. Moore admired what Weaver was doing to honor Green’s legacy, and agreed to lend her expertise to help get the project off the ground.
Today, most new whiskey brands start out by sourcing the aged spirit they sell on contract from an established distiller, sampling what’s available in the warehouses, blending it to their own specifications, and then bottling it for sale. This saves on the tremendous expense and complexity of building a distillery as well as the years-long wait for one’s own whiskey to come of age. Moore hit the phones, working her industry contacts to see what was available. Weaver was able to uncover many details of Green’s whiskey-making process in her research, from the recipe he likely used to the way his whiskey was barreled and aged, and Weaver and Moore hoped to locate a spirit that reflected his practices.
After a few false starts, the women found what they were looking for at Tennessee Distilling Group, in nearby Columbia. Tennessee whiskeys, by definition, are filtered through charcoal before they age—a technique known as the Lincoln County Process that Green likely helped to refine more than 150 years ago—which leads to an exceptionally smooth result. Weaver favored fuller-bodied whiskeys, with rich vanilla and caramel flavors, and chose barrels at least eight years old, which priced the product at the high end of the market. She determined that some of the profits would be used to pay for any bloodline descendant of Green to attend college and established the Nearest Green Foundation, hiring one of Green’s great-great-granddaughters, Victoria Eady-Butler, to run it. “It was a no-brainer,” Eady-Butler says. “How can you say no to someone who’s devoting her life’s work to continuing my family’s legacy?”
Throughout the spring of 2017, Weaver worked at a breakneck pace to bring the product to market. By that summer, less than a year after she first set foot in Lynchburg, Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Whiskey had arrived on shelves. Weaver says the spirit outsold all her projections (rich, smooth, and the color of butterscotch, it goes for $65 per bottle). In two years, it has become available in 50 states and 10 countries; a single-barrel offering called Uncle Nearest 1820, which sells for $120, was released earlier this year, as was a small-batch $50 bottle. The whiskeys have racked up more than 60 spirits awards to date, including back-to-back gold medals at the influential San Francisco World Spirits Competition. The actor Jeffrey Wright, known for his role in the HBO series Westworld, has become an investor and in February starred in a commercial for Uncle Nearest that ran after the Super Bowl. That ad was expanded into a 10-minute short film, The Story of Nearest Green, which screened at the Tribeca Film Festival the following month.
Already, the company has achieved an impressive slate of firsts: It’s the world’s first major spirits brand to be led by an African-American woman, the first major American spirits brand with an all-female leadership team, the first with an all-minority board, and the fastest-growing independent whiskey brand in U.S. history. Weaver credits the brand’s compelling values, along with a high-quality product, for its overnight success. “Every story in whiskey history has always been about a white man—period,” she says. “This is a brand that is, yes, for white males, who drink more whiskey than anyone, but it also includes everybody else. And no brand has ever done that.”
Thirty minutes north of Lynchburg on Route 231 sits Sand Creek Farms, a sprawling Tennessee Walking Horse training center separated from the four-lane highway by a quarter mile of white wooden post and rail fencing. Weaver bought it in 2017 and has already transformed it into the Nearest Green Distillery, which she hopes will afford a permanence to Green’s name in the annals of American whiskey.
The property consists of a compound of low-slung green and white cinder block structures, mostly stable blocks, plus a riding arena and administration buildings. When I visit, in June, one building has already been converted into a bottling facility and a toolshed has been transformed into an ad hoc tasting room, dripping with retro hipster appeal. Construction is underway to turn a horse barn into staff offices.
Weaver says that, over the next couple of years, most of the stable blocks will be leveled to make way for barrel warehouses and a still house. There will be tasting areas, a country music concert venue, and a barbecue restaurant: a family-friendly visitors’ experience with something for everyone. The horses will stay, consolidated into a single barn (Weaver even bought one, a jet-black stallion named Top Honors, as a birthday present to herself ). She estimates that the project, which she’s financing with help from investors, will ultimately cost $50 million. “No sane person would be doing this,” she says. “Building out a distillery right now is cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.” Moore now works full-time as Uncle Nearest’s director of whiskey production, the same title she once held for Jack Daniel’s. The two women hoped they could coax one of Nearest’s descendants to act as the brand’s master distiller, but so far, none has stepped up for the job.
Blending and bottling whiskey made by a veteran distillery is one thing; making your own is another. The distillery is a gamble, but Weaver feels that, in the long run, relying on an outsider company is a bigger one. “When you’re trying to build a legacy, you can’t leave that in the hands of someone else,” she says. Moore, for her part, relishes the freedom it will give her to experiment with new recipes and aging techniques. For instance, Weaver believes that Green’s whiskey would have been made using malted corn, so Moore is in the process of sourcing some to try out.
An eternal optimist, Weaver believes she has found her life’s purpose not just in giving Nearest Green his due, but in resurrecting and retelling a rare story of racial harmony in the 19th-century South. “I have always seen it as a hopeful story, about a friendship between an African-American man and a white kid,” Weaver says. “There’s a fire I wake up with every morning, and it feels like there’s so much I need to get done with this story, and with this brand.”
Leaving the distillery, on the way back into Lynchburg, Weaver turns off the route and up a gravel driveway that climbs an overgrown hillside. A stately old home appears at its crest: a vine-covered, white brick pile out of a Faulkner story. “This is our forever home,” Weaver says. Here is yet another project. She and Keith bought the house at auction a few months earlier, unable to resist, and are about to begin a lengthy restoration process. She has no plans to return to Los Angeles. “When we started this, there was no thought in mind that I would still be doing it in 20 years,” she says. “But now it means so much to so many people.” She has promises to keep—to Green’s family, to her investors, to Lynchburg. “I feel a bit of the weight of all these people on my shoulders. But I’ve got broad shoulders, so it works.”