Legacy of Tennessee whiskey traced back to Uncle Nearest Green, a former slave

NASHVILLE, Tennessee (WKRN) – A black man who was born during slavery is now known as the godfather of Tennessee whiskey.

A legacy comes alive with every pour of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey.

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“I’m confident they know the story,” said Victoria Eady Butler. “They raise a glass to history.”

Her story as an award-winning Master Blender flows in her veins.

“I am very fortunate to be Nearest Green’s great-great-granddaughter,” she said.

News 2’s Nickelle Smith sits down with V. Eady Butler, Master Blender at Uncle Nearest Distillery (WKRN photo)

Born in 1820, Uncle Nearest’s first name was Nathan Green: a slave. After the abolition, his family found a home in Lynchburg, Tennessee, where word of his whiskey spread for miles.

“He added one more ingredient and filtered his whiskey through sugar maple charcoal in what’s called the Lincoln County process. So Nearest made whiskey for a minister over in Lincoln County,” said Jason Morgan, tour guide and bourbon aficionado at Nearest Green Distillery in Shelbyville, Tennessee.

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“You don’t work a day in your life if you enjoy it, and I love telling the story,” Morgan said. “To be honest, I worked as a tour guide at Jack Daniels and was there when the story broke.”

The story “broke through” in the rest of the country after years of being told by Butler’s grandmother.

“She made sure the family knew the history of his relationship with Jack Daniel and she always said that her grandfather taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey,” she said. “The Lynchburg townsfolk knew of their relationship and that Nearest was responsible for making whiskey for Jack Daniel and teaching him how to make whiskey. But once Fawn Weaver arrived in the town of Lynchburg, so much more followed.”

Fawn Weaver led a team of 20 history experts to uncover thousands of documents and renewed a legacy with the creation of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey in 2017.

“It became very clear that if we don’t cement his legacy, we’re not doing Nearest Green justice,” Weaver told News 2 in a 2021 interview.

A legacy that is now known worldwide, but the people of Lynchburg knew about it all along. According to the Nearest Green Foundation, “Nearest Green and his children were mentioned 50 times” in Jack Daniel’s official biography in 1967, which was “more times than almost anyone else included in the book”.

Although his memory is vivid to locals, there are no pictures of Nearest Green.

“To me, and probably most people who have seen that iconic picture with Nearest’s son to the right of Jack Daniel, I imagine he looks something like this – a very strong, proud, humble black man who has worked really hard .” Butler said.

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That hard work is now familiar to anyone who visits the distillery’s 300-acre property off Highway 231 in Shelbyville, Tennessee.

Uncle Nearest WhiskeyUncle Nearest Distillery (WKRN photo)

“I used to come here as a kid, my dad would come here if you wanted to offload a horse,” Morgan said.

The property has a history of its own, as visitors can still see the stables from when Tennessee trail horses were once sold there.

“Nearest Green has never made whiskey here, but the fact that we have a home for the brand that honors him means everything,” said Butler. “I firmly believe that his spirit lives on here. There’s a certain feeling I get driving through the gate of this property. I think he is beyond proud of what we have done and continue to do to shine a spotlight on his contribution to the spirits industry and ensure his legacy is never forgotten.”

Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey was the most awarded American whiskey of 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022. It surpassed the $100 million mark last year.

Uncle Nearest WhiskeyUncle Nearest Whiskey Master Blender V. Eady Butler (Courtesy of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey)

Butler has been recognized four times as Master Blender of the Year and is the first person of color to receive the honor.

She previously worked as an analytical manager for the Nashville Regional Organized Crime Information Center. After a brief retirement, she worked in administration at the Nearest Green Foundation before joining Master Blender.

“I am very proud of these awards and awards that I have received over the past few years. But I think I’m prouder of the team that Fawn Weaver put together,” she said. “We are extremely diverse, we are inclusive, we are family.”

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This family is now working to share a story once lost in time by honoring his legacy and becoming a household name.

“What I say to people when you buy or drink whiskey is that it has to be accessible. It has to be something you want to reach for,” Morgan said. “I think we’re producing one of those brands that you love. With all the whiskey I have at home, and I have quite a lot of it, I want you to reach for Uncle Nearest.”

The company launched the Uncle Nearest HBCU Old-Fashioned Challenge earlier this year to raise $1 million. From now through March 31, consumers can participate in the challenge in four ways. Click on this link for more information.

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