It was a slave who first taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey, and Fawn Weaver is making sure his company as it exists today honors that debt.
That’s according to the New York Times. In 2016, Brown-Forman, the distillery’s corporate parent, announced to much fanfare that it would begin paying tribute to Nearest Green, the man who mentored Jack Daniel in the art of whiskey-making. But when Weaver, a black real estate investor and author, visited the distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee, she didn’t see any such thing. She began to dig, and she has since learned a great deal about Nearest Green and the history of Jack Daniel’s—more even than the company knew:
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.
Through that research, she also located the farm where the two men began distilling — and bought it, along with a four-acre parcel in the center of town that she intends to turn into a memorial park. She even discovered that Green’s real name was Nathan; Nearest (not Nearis, as has often been reported) was a nickname.
She’s now writing a book, but she also brought the information to Brown-Forman. They’ve since officially recognized Green as the company’s first master distiller, bumping Daniel himself to number two. In an interview, Mark I. McCallum, president of Jack Daniel’s Brands, told the Times they’d planned to do it last year, the company’s 150th anniversary, but delayed due to the acrimonious 2016 election and fears they’d appear to be cashing in on Green’s involvement. But Weaver seems to have lit a fire under them.
The added context is important because of how the story of whiskey in the South has traditionally been told:
The company’s decision to recognize its debt to a slave, first reported last year by The New York Times, is a momentous turn in the history of Southern foodways. Even as black innovators in Southern cooking and agriculture are beginning to get their due, the tale of American whiskey is still told as a whites-only affair, about Scots-Irish settlers who brought Old World distilling knowledge to the frontier states of Tennessee and Kentucky.
Green’s story changes all that by showing how enslaved people likely provided the brains as well as the brawn in what was an arduous, dangerous and highly technical operation.
Read the whole story at the New York Times.