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The hidden Black history behind how whiskey was created

Iconic whiskey brands like Jack Daniel's can trace their history back to Black men at distilleries, but their names aren't as well known.
Posted at 9:03 PM, Feb 16, 2023

Both bourbon — a type of whiskey — and Tennessee whiskey can trace their origins to the 18th and 19th centuries in the American South.

One common story ties bourbon’s creation to the white Baptist preacher Elijah Craig, whose name still graces the bottles of a namesake bourbon brand to this day. But evidence shows that it was actually Black hands that took on much of the work that went into it making the now classic spirits — long before it was bottled.

"There's the obvious tremendous physical labor that went into it," said Che Ramos, owner of The Black Bourbon Guy. "You had to move large quantities of grain and other such non-glamorous jobs. And when we look at a lot of the old-timey white gentlemen who were on the bottles, right... I don't imagine Elijah Craig was out here rolling around barrels himself because in 1789, if you had enough money, why would you do that?"

Ramos runs a set of whiskey and bourbon tasting events that walk people through the Black history of the spirits.

Take none other than Old Number 7 itself — Jack Daniel's. Arguably the most famous American whiskey brand owes its iconic taste to a Black man: Nathan Nearest Green, also known as Uncle Nearest.

"He was the master distiller on the property of a Lutheran pastor in Shelbyville, Tennessee," Ramos said. "He was in charge of producing whiskey. A teenage Jack Daniel came to work on that farm. At some point, the Lutheran pastor put the two of them together, asked Nathaniel — or Uncle Nearest, if you will — to teach Jack Daniel how to make Tennessee whiskey, and the legend was born."

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So, why is it called Jack Daniel’s and not Uncle Nearest?

"Now we're talking the 1880s here, right? So unfortunately, it was not a realistic possibility for a Black formerly enslaved man, or not formerly enslaved man for that matter, to raise enough capital to start a distillery himself," Ramos said. "So there are people who believe that Jack Daniel's kind of did Uncle Nearest dirty. I don't think that that is the case at all. Just the environment did not really work out well."

Since 2016, Jack Daniels has acknowledged and celebrated Green's role in creating its signature product. Green is recognized on distillery tours and in the drink’s history as its first master distiller. 

"When we first told the story, we did not realize the significance and the importance to people," said Nelson Eddy, historian at Jack Daniel's Distillery. "But it became very, very clear that this was an important story that people felt pride in. Here is a name that people didn't know that they could point to an African American once an enslaved individual who'd accomplished something really remarkable in American industry with a name that we all know today. So it's important that people know Nearest's name."

The company also consciously chose not to make its own whiskey line honoring Green, after hearing concerns that it would look like the company was cashing in on Green’s name for its own gain. 

But his influence is recognized in other brands. 

In 2017, author Fawn Weaver launched her own whiskey brand called Uncle Nearest after meeting relatives of Uncle Nearest who still worked for Jack Daniel’s. And the master distiller is none other than Uncle Nearest’s great-great-granddaughter Victoria Eady Butler.

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In recent years, there have been even more Black-owned brands joining the scene, with experts estimating there are now a few dozen Black-owned distilleries.

Saint Liberty Whiskey has focused its whiskeys on women who distilled during prohibition in the 1920s. One drink honors Bertie Brown, a Black woman in Montana who was one of the top moonshine makers in the country until she met an untimely death during the distillation process.

"She was killed, but during an unfortunate distillation accident in which some of the vapor from her product caught fire and that blew her kitchen up, taking her out with it," Ramos said. "So a really unfortunate end to someone who sounded like she was a fantastic woman because, I mean, prohibition running in the 1920s and 30s, it wasn't easy to do much as a Black woman."

That point resonated with Saint Liberty investors Dia Simms and Erin Harris. They’re already the CEO and chief brand officer respectively of another drink, Lobos 1707 tequila, but the chance to join a project that honored those that came before them was too good to pass up.

"Their stories really shine because, look, of course they were living on the lam and doing things that weren't within the law at that time," Simms said. "But they also were thriving entrepreneurs, like driving their own economic empowerment at a time where things were even more constrained than they are today."

The way they see it, that long history allows them to make more of it today.

"When you talk about Black entrepreneurs, ownership and equity is so important to build wealth," Harris said. "So we've been around this industry working with distributors, working in the 360 ecosystem, and we haven't seen a lot of people like this."

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