Podcast Episode: The Legacy of Jack Daniel and Uncle Nearest (feat Fawn Weaver)
The perfect story for our times. Fawn Weaver, CEO of Uncle Nearest, Inc joins me for an incredible story of discovery that not only created a whiskey distillery, but also a pathway to change.
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The story of Jack Daniel and Nathan "Uncle Nearest" Green could have been something much different - but in the hands of Fawn Weaver, she looked past headlines and social media to find the story behind the story.
And her findings have led her to build a foundation in Nearest's name, a distillery in his honor, and it also brought her and the Jack Daniel's Distillery together to create an initiative that will help change the whiskey industry going forward.
As we come to the end of Season 3 of Whiskey Lore, I wanted to take this opportunity to send you a huge thank you for listening and for telling your friends about the show. Now. I've had a few people asking me how they can support the show and make sure that I keep writing and producing more episodes. I just introduced a brand new Patreon account and you can just go to Whiskey-Lore.com/members or go to Patreon and search for Whiskey Lore.
During the next two months. I'm going to put the show on hiatus. But if you're a Patreon member then I'll be adding behind the scenes episodes one for each episode of the first three seasons and I will also be spinning up more of the extra 20 minutes interviews for you and I'll have a downloadable flavor wheel, and a printable tasting note PDF for you - so you can track all your favorite whiskey's and also a very cool desktop wallpaper with Whiskey Lure on it and my favorite castle.
Don't forget that there is a podcast RSS feed in there plug that into your favorite podcast app. And then you can listen on your regular app alongside the Whiskey Lore feed.
So for the last time in 2020 want to say thank you guys for making this such a fantastic year and joining me on this journey of whiskey stories and whiskey myths and I'm looking forward to producing a whole lot more of these in the future.
And now I'm extremely proud to present to you part 2 of our story about Fawn Weaver and the legacy that she's building for Jack Daniel's first master distiller - Nearest Green. I hope you enjoy. This is Whiskey Lore.
With the uncertainty of the Civil War a distant memory, it was time for Jack Daniel to ramp up his efforts to move off the Dan Call farm and make a distillery of his own. To make his business grow he would need to get it closer to the Tullahoma railroad stop. According to the Jack Daniel’s Legacy book written by Ben Green, he first moved off the farm by partnering with a war veteran Colonel John Mason Hughes. During this interim stay on Col. Hughes farm, he went to court and had his minority status removed. This meant he no longer would he need to rely on Dan Call for the housing of his stills or Uncle Felix for signing of business contracts. He was officially his own man.
Now for Nearest Green’s sons George, Lewis, and Eli, well they would move along to the new stillhouse with Jack, but Uncle Nearest decided to stay behind on the Dan Call farm with his family. Nearest loved children and music and he found all he needed right where he was.
But Jack and Nearest would stay friends. And Nearest descendants continue to work for the Jack Daniel Distillery to this day. Even when the distillery had to move to St. Louis because of Tennessee prohibition in 1909, the Green family was interwoven into the fabric of Jack Daniel’s Distillery.
THE FORTUNES OF NEAREST GREEN
In talking with Nelson Eddy, Chief Historian for Jack Daniel, I was struck by his suggestion that Lem Motlow, Jack Daniel’s nephew and successor in the 20th century made sure that his employees were paid on tenure, not by the color of their skin. But Fawn told me, it went much further back.
That wasn't a Lem thing that was a Jack thing that was passed on to Lem. So Jack pay people based on tenure and that continued on so there's a few things that can change it on under Lems and then continued on Ann under Lem's children one of which was people Bank being paid on tenure another was giving 5 lb boxes of chocolate every Christmas I still don't understand that one and then the other was giving $100 in silver dollars in a velvet bag every holiday to every member of the team even after dollar bills were available Jackson had this thing with silver dollars and so every year everybody knew for the holidays they were going to get this bag of this velvet bag of silver dollars and a 5 lb box of chocolate.
And so those are the three things that continued on from Jack to Lems and then two limbs for boys but yes it is absolutely the case and
What we do know is immediately following the Civil War in 1870 is the first time that you see African Americans on the census as people not property and when you begin looking at the wealth of those that are on those sentences than Nearest Green is yes the wealthiest African-American in the area and he's wealthier than many of his white neighbors I still find incredibly interesting to say the least and then his children if you come in to Lynchburg I could point out to you so many Parcels of land that were theirs as a matter of fact Eli and will heal I actually live with. But I thought and Jesse Nearest his two grandsons they lived across from each other they Chad one house on a full block there was nothing else on the Block on either side of the street accept Jesse's house was in the middle of the block on one side and Todd's house was in the middle of the block on the other side and you're talking about downtown this is downtown Lynchburg around the land where daddy George were Miss Helen's grandfather George Green the land that is at the top of Jack Daniel Distillery now we're all those warehouses are at the top that was Georgia's Lan it's George's kids who decided to sell it back to the the Matt low-fat or sell it to the Matt Lo family and I remember miss Helen was not very happy about it because her mother didn't like the price that the other squito siblings had agreed to but and thought that they would they should hold out for more but the other siblings besides to do it with the bottom line all that land that was up there at the top of up tenured Hill that is now The Distillery that was owned by George Green and then right next to all that land that was George Green was it belong to Tommy Green and right across the street from that that whole area was and so you have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of Acres all around this area that were owned by black people”
So let’s go back to episode one. Fawn was in Singapore and had just read a not too flattering New York Times article about Jack Daniel and an enslaved man who trained him, yet seeing the intriguing picture of Jack Daniel a black man next to each other in the accompanying photo. When she gets home to LA, she reads the copy of the Jack Daniel’s Legacy book she had ordered, and discovers that it is filled with references about this man Nathan “Uncle Nearest” Green and his family.
What does she do next? She boards a plane from Los Angeles to Nashville, rents a car, and heads to a house she’s rented in Lynchburg, Tennessee. With very little to go on, she heads to the library and begins digging in, when a stranger appears.
Fawn: “one of the very first people who I met when I was in the library doing research was the who is now the eldest descendant of Jack Daniel at that time she was the second eldest because her mother Mary Evon was still alive and in Mary Evon passed away at the age of at the ripe age of 105 about a year-and-a-half ago right around the time that Nearest is granddaughter I miss Nellie Mae died at the right age of 108 so you know you may want to come down to Lynchburg in researching the story is there were so many Elders still alive and most of those a sadly have passed away over the last three years and I'm so grateful that they were still here to be able to fill in these pieces because quite frankly if they weren't we'd be in trouble Miss Smith Alan one of new Harris descendants she's the one who identified the African American in the photo next to Jack and she was able to identify him because he raised her until she was 11 years old so we're all you know trying to figure out who's this African-American the word out there was it was either Nearest or it was you know someone a descendant of Nearest but no one actually knew and she walks right up at the to the photo in Jack's office at Jack Daniel Distillery and the tour guide is taking her around on a private tour as well as some other African American Elders of Lynchburg and she walks right up to the photo and she said yep that's daddy George and she passed away I want to say maybe a year after that or we can and so there we were able to piece a good amount of this stuff together because the Elders of both families were still here
And but at that time I I came down I'm in the library the second eldest descendant of Jack is called to the library which understandably so put yourself in their position in this kind of goes back to me saying that it's usually not this or that it's a little bit of this and a little bit of that and so you could look at it and think owal because there were these black people in town that were doing research on this story then this woman got Cole to come shut it down if you think about it everything online was dragging her family through the mud and you have not just a black person who shows up but I black New York Times bestselling author USA Today best-selling author which I later found out they all knew because the person whose home I rented you know how you do the VRBO and they have to approve you to be able to stay at the house that person had done the Googling and then shared with everybody that there was a a Sony movie exact which is my husband and a New York Times bestselling author coming to town so you have this black couple that comes to Lynchburg everybody know Holloman the small towns called are you from a small town do you know this culture my point of is if you think about it if it's your family and right it's being like drug through the mud specifically over a racial issue there is no way in the world you would think of that a black New York Times bestselling author and her the movie executive husband was coming down here to give you a fair Shake yeah that's true and so she walks to the doors I look in her eyes she introduced herself immediately as Lee Matt Lou granddaughter and I look into her eyes and I could see I don't I don't know that it I could say it was fear but definitely major unease and I understood it immediately one of the gifts I think that we could all benefit from at the current moment is having an ability to put ourselves in other people's shoes and at that moment my first thought wasn't how dare you come down here and try to stop this my first thought was put myself in her shoes and how would what would I think I was doing there and so putting myself in her shoes I immediately looked into her eyes and and I said listen I am not here to harm your family's Legacy I believe that social media has the story wrong I believe that the press as a story while I'm not clay risen's original piece but the stuff that got picked up after that we're people started making stuff up and I believe that they have it wrong Ann I shared with her things that I have read in the book and why I believed that they had that story wrong is it listen if if if if Jack was trying to steal a recipe and hide and enslaved man all they have to do is leave them out of the book right to give credit to a black man at any point during when it actually happened the story of Jack and Nearest nor when the book was being written in 1967 you have to give credit in either time and so understanding that I said I believe this to be a story of love honor and respect that is what I am here to proof I said if I begin doing the research and I discover that jack is not who I believe he to be if I discover that this is not a positive story that some of the stuff that is out there online is true someone will come down here and they will do the research nothing that happens in the dark stays in the dark it always comes to light someone will come down here and do that research and they will get the exact same information I will see but you have my word it will not be me
I write books on love I share stories on love that is what I am here for and she what she is told her cousin and other people around Lynchburg is he looked into my eyes and she knew that I was I was telling the truth she knew I was not there to harm her family and so she pulls out her cell phone and she said that I want to help you and she begins giving me the names and numbers of Nearest greens descendants information I did not have by the way this.
Here's the advantage of being in a community where word gets around really quickly is that your access actually probably was a lot quicker to be able to to get to people because of the connections That Work Work Connection and it wasn't just that connection she also one of the things she said before she left and she said you know in the book that you read where Jack grew up where the Distillery was where near screen was the distiller you realize that farm is for sale the farm had been on the market for 15 months there is absolutely no way number one she could have known that I was a real estate investor and there would still be there and the house intact”
EVERYTHING FALLS INTO PLACE
And so knowing that the Dan Call farm was actually available for purchase, Fawn saw her first opportunity to help preserve some of the legacy of Nearest Green. And this is where serendipity started to work its magic.
Fawn: “I get a call on my cell phone and it's her cousin and it again Lee Matt Lou family and it's it's her cousin and she says hey my cousin told me you met her in the the library that you want to go to the Dan Hall Farm I'm a realtor I can take you and so she offered to take us the next day not thinking that not knowing number one that we were Real Estate Investors and why would we not buy a piece of American History that's just nuts but also in addition to that that she didn't think that we had any desire to buy it she just thought that she was going to be taking us and she was excited to have a reason to go walk around and see the property herself and so we the next day and we put in an offer immediately so then she truly was our realtor and did the transaction and in all the rest of that and as we as she began to get to know us in this was in a little bit with a little ways after that but after she she got to know us and really got to know her heart and what we set out to do she said you know if you ever decide to honor Nearest with a bottle I will come out of retirement to make sure you get it right everybody knows what everybody does we knew her as a realtor we did not know we knew her as a realtor we knew she was Jack Daniels family we didn't know anything beyond that and unless you're in a from a small town you don't take the time to dig
People are that are living that's just not what you do and so we did not know her background and so when she sent it the first time it was just kind of like haha you know whatever and I would did not really really think too much of it number one we didn't know her background but also I mean anyway and so we didn't we didn't give any weight to it at all and then she brought it up again for the life of me I don't remember how much how long after the first time but she brought it up again and this time she said you don't know this but whiskey is in my blood it's all I've ever known is the family business and that's when we learned that for 31 years she had been at Jack Daniel Distillery and when she left she was ahead of whisky operations for Nearest Green Distillery”
The woman Fawn is talking about is Sherry Moore. And this chance pairing over a real estate deal would be the beginning of a journey that would see the launching the Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey brand and three bottles that hold dates significant to Nearest’s life. And since its debut in July of 2017, their whiskeys have gone on to win over 70 awards including “World’s Best” by Whisky Magazine.
Fawn: “that's why we were able to do what we had done is because she was able to utilize her 31 years of experience there is no one and I don't believe you will find anyone to dispute this point there is no one in the Tennessee Whiskey Business with more experience than Jerry more knowing if you talked to Jeff Arnett she hired him if you if Jimmy Bedford was still alive he would tell you she trained him the current vice president over at Jack Daniel Distillery she hired and trained him I mean you 1 years learning every aspect of Jack Daniel Distillery”
So I asked Fawn what she thought the driving factor was for Sherry coming out of retirement to start over with Uncle Nearest.
Fawn: “around the same dinner table they were friends they play together so she knew the story that the stories that were out there in the Press about her family and norris' family weren't true and she grew up knowing exactly who Nearest Green was the thing that we have to remember and I think a lot of people missed is the story of Nearest Green it's not that it was not told previously. When Jack was alive everybody knew who Nearest Greene was and what his significance was to Jack when Jack's ascendant Lem Motlow took over everybody knew who Nearest was and who Nearest his boys were and their significance to there when Williams boys to go over the same thing continue it wasn't until the eldest of Limbs Lynn's boys died in in 1978 so that's Riggor motlow he had they have long Sold The Distillery but they had continued running it and regular was the last president and then he went on to the board so they were still always very much involved with the operations of it and with the leadership of it in Lynchburg Riggor died and 78th and the story of Nearest Greene at Pearce of died with them because by 79 when one of norris' descendants took friends to The Distillery as she always did because she like to let she's like to let them hear the stories about her of her ancestor Nearest Greene cuz it was a part of their tour and it was a part of that whole experience and when she went and 1979 her daughter recalls very vividly her calling and saying they whitewash the story might my grandfather's my grandfather's no longer in it”
A LESSON IN GRACE AND LOVE
Fawn has theories as to how Nearest Green slipped from the history of the distillery, but here is the amazing thing about her - she knows the past can’t be changed, but the future can be shaped. So she began moving forward with her plans. And after meeting with family members and doing research in Tennessee, Georgia and the nation’s capital - she sat down again with Clay Risen, in New York, to help the Times writer get a handle on all that she had found about Jack and Nearest’s relationship. Jack Daniel’s Brands have since acknowledged the awkward situation they were in and now with Fawn involved, they were able to piece together more of the story and they now feature Nearest and his family prominently in the Visitor’s Center and on the tours. And they opened the door to letting Fawn brand her own whiskey using the name and legacy of Jack Daniel’s first master distiller.
It is a story that could have had a very different ending if Fawn had just decided to stop at the headline, read all of the Tweets, and absorb all of the negative soundbites that were filling the Internet back in 2016. But Fawn’s quest to first seek love, grace, and understanding opened the door to the deeper story of friendship whose once faint echo is being reamplified today.
And first looking for grace is something she says she learned from her father - Frank Wilson, a songwriter and producer for Motown Records during their golden era in the 1960s. She’s honoring him in the brand’s latest commercial by featuring a song he wrote and performed himself, before he went on to a career of writing hit songs like Love Child and Still Water, Love for others.
When I put two and two together, I thought of how Uncle Nearest was unifying black and white through the message of friendship between Jack and Nearest, and how similarly Berry Gordy of Motown Records always had a mission of making colorless unifying music. I asked Fawn if her father’s influence on her might be helping her to channel that same spirit.
Fawn: “Absolutely. It's you know, I joke about us being the Motown of whiskey, but that's what we are. We are colorless. We are a black-owned brand but we have brought everybody to the table. If you look through our social media feed on any given day Haley our social media manager who's brilliant. She's absolutely fantastic. But you know, you're going to see a photo and it's an African-American that's holding up a bottle of Uncle Nearest are pouring and doing
Cocktail and then you're going to see someone who's white and someone who's Asian and someone who's Hispanic and it's just I mean this our whiskey family is everybody Under the Sun. Our buyer is almost 50% women unbelievable in this industry. And and so I I look at us truly as being the Motown of whiskey because I set out from the very beginning to be a brand that would. Be not only welcoming to everyone but would be beloved by everyone and that there would be no color line that there would be no gender line that it would just be something where every single person could relate to raising a glass and honoring the first African-American Master distiller on record in the United States. That's all that mattered. It didn't matter what race the person was holding up the glass and I think the reason why our brand has been so successful is that we were adamant about that. Me to pigeonhole who we could Market to because if you tell me to only Market to this particular population, that means you just told me that the rest of the population my products not good enough for them. And so I made the decision that from the very beginning that we would be a colorless brand and I'm so grateful because in this moment I am able to say some some things that are a healing balm to those who are black and those who are white those who are having a difficult time understanding what is happening out there when I speak people listen, and I think it's because I've been really
Clear about saying I will not see race. I absolutely will not see race. I mean unless unless we're talking about the human race or the Christian race. I won't see race and that is where I stand."
THE NEAREST AND JACK INITIATIVE AND LEGACY
Fawn definitely doesn’t hold her opinions close to the vest when it comes to the lack of listening and empathy that we’re experiencing in the world right today. And beyond just talking about it, she is actively seeking solutions. And one of the ways she believes we can truly start understanding each other is by surrounding ourselves with people who are different from us. But that can be a little difficult when your industry isn’t drawing a diverse set of people. So once again, she is actively seeking a solution. And she pulled in a very familiar and very fitting partner to team up with on her latest program, the Nearest and Jack Advancement Initiative.
Fawn: "Yeah, well absolutely. Well, the Nearest Green School of distilling is the easiest pillar of the program. And so what Jack Daniels and Uncle Nearest neighbors brain Distillery. What we agree to do is each of us have pledged 2.5 million dollars. So five million is the initial pledge overall and it is to do three things to create the Nearest Green School of distilling that the curriculum was actually written by the VP of Jack Daniel's Distillery. Keebler African American who was hired by our head of whiskey operations Sherry Moore not even two of them reunited and wrote the curriculum that was approved by motlow State College last year. And now it's it's at the state level at which obviously a lot of things have been disrupted at the moment. So it's taking longer than I would have liked but, you know bureaucracy at this moment. Yes, there's a whole lot going on. But once that is approved at the current state level then it will go to the accrediting body in order to To receive accreditation and then it is the first distilling program in America in which you will be able to get an a degree it specifically in distilling and that is at near screen School of distilling here at motlow State College or recognize the last name. Yes regular motlow is who donated that land that the school was built on and who donated a lot of money in the beginning to help to create that school. And so you have that as the first Pillar we have to create a pipeline of those coming in Nearest Green isn't just the first known African American Master distiller, but as it relates to a major brand he remains the only one that's a problem. That is yeah. It means we've got to bring in a pipeline that doesn't exist. So that was the reason for near screen School distilling, but then as this we came into this year and we really we were given an opportunity. Tunic
Unity Every situation every challenge as an opportunity. What is the gift in this Challenge? And I think the gift in the challenge of the what is going on with the black lives matter movement and even beyond that in racial relations this racial Reckoning and our country overall. What it gives us the ability to do is to be far more creative and how we figure this. Us out and how we really impact change then we could have been before so for instance the business incubation program. We are literally currently at this very moment helping seven or eight have to go and look now, but seven or eight black own Brands and by helping I mean everything from business plans to Capital raises to Marketing sales branding P are expanding their distribution Network expanding
Salesforce allowing them to borrow our Salesforce. I mean we are coming besides we're coming alongside these black own Brands to really help to push them into not only National Distribution, but inability to be known and purchased Nationwide because a lot of times if you pushed into National Distribution and you don't have the ability to get the word out there then you'll be delisted. And what was that all for and so We have to be able to get them into the markets but also be able to help them to sell and those markets. Well, not only do we not own any percentage of any of these businesses that were helping. We will not own any percentage of the businesses were helping that is not something that could happen in a normal environment. Right? Right. That's literally something that could only happen in this moment in time that you have two companies that are not related except for the history of the two companies that do. Not have any type of business relationship outside of we share a history that have come together for on the nonprofit side to help build competitors. Yeah. That's what I'm taking normal. Well you well, the whiskey industry is always very friendly in certain ways. Usually it's a distillers that are all big friends with each other. But if it was going to happen in any industry, it seems like the whiskey industry would be the one that would do something like Help out your competitor get them started and and get them rolling. That's great story. Great. I absolutely agree. So that's the business incubation program. And I mean some of the brands are just just fantastic and so I'm really excited about that. And then we have the leadership acceleration program that what we call lat and we CBS This Morning announced last week and in a special that they did in a feature Tracy Franklin is the first apprentice and she was
The face for Glenfiddich here in the US and what people didn't know is she such a beloved brand ambassador. She was actually Scotch brand ambassador of the year the wire whisky magazine named her that and the world was here worlds in New York and London and so she is so beloved in the whiskey Community, but what people did not know is she was actually trained under Dave pickerel. She came Into the business wanting to be a distiller, but the opportunity never presented himself. So she went on to the sales and marketing side really the marketing side because there wasn't an opportunity for her in distilling. Yeah, so we are now have taken her brought her back to distilling right now. She's actually shadowing Becky Harris up at Catoctin Creek nice. She is doing that while simultaneously doing her Hazmat training Greenbelt. Oh, shh.
Wow, the manufacturing certification. Also we matched her salary from Glenfiddich because we didn't want for any of the apprentices to lose anything during this process. And so that's with all the apprentices wear matching whatever they're already making wherever they already are and then we're paying for everything on top of that. And so she begins traveling she leaves from Catoctin Creek and then I believe she goes up to Moonshine University does all that stuff there then comes down. To Nearest Green Distillery going over to our partner, Tennessee. Still in group in Columbia, and she's going to be training with our folks there and then she goes from there and at some point she will she was going to train under Jeff Arnett. So now I assume it's going to be Chris Fletcher will see and then she will also train under Chris Morris up at brown-forman. She'll trained under Nicole Austin over at George Dickel. So you're talking about we're literally creating, you know, the distilling superhero. I was gonna say that's it. We're creating here. Yeah, this is something that an environment like the current one where it really causes everybody to stop long enough to not think about business and to think about how can we affect change? How can we be helpful and for a publicly traded company? It's very rare to ever have the opportunity to be able to stop and say, how can we
Be helpful versus how can we make more sales? And and and so those are the three pillars of the Nearest and Jack advancement initiative and we're we've been off to the races from even before we announced it man. Well, I what I love about your story and and all that's that's built around. This is how you find the silver lining and you really make it shine and and I mean, it's it's great to see that. That energy and that that positivity that's going into every single aspect of what you're doing from the research that you did connecting the families up through doing the foundation and and building The Distillery and bringing up a whole new generation of people into the distilling industry."
With a new distillery under construction in Shelbyville, TN, her Nearest Green Foundation in full swing, her support of college educations for all of Nearest Green’s descendants, a couple of award winning whiskeys under her belt, and the story of Nearest Green not only revived in the distillery he helped build, but an initiative that will echo his achievements throughout a generously diverse set of stillrooms and rickhouses across America - Fawns achievements in just 4 years, are truly incredible.
Fawn: "Lining and fate leading to fate leading to fate leading to fate. That in itself is Uncle Nearest. That is the brand story that is everything about this people. Give me way too much credit. There are so many things that simply lined up. Yeah that I've never seen lineup for anything in my life and that I can't give credit for I joke, but I'm very serious that I think Nearest and Jack are sitting in heaven enjoying a dram watching all of this and pulling puppet strings because it just doesn't make sense. Yeah. Well, you know, it's right when it when it goes I won't say it's easy, but when it when it when it flows like this, you gotta feel like you're in the right place the right time I do I do II have no I have no doubt that I am exactly where I am supposed to be an every team member.
Bur of Uncle Nearest is exactly where they're supposed to be and we are making history every single day and we're going to continue."
I’m Drew Hannush and this is Whiskey Lore
Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life, LLC
Stories, research and production by Drew Hannush
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And find whiskey tasting videos, behind-the-scenes content, interviews and more by joining the Whiskey Lore Society at whiskey-lore.com/members.
Thank you again to Fawn Weaver the CEO of Uncle Nearest, Inc for her time and to find out more about them, head to UncleNearest.com And thanks to Nelson Eddy the Chief Historian of Jack Daniel for his time and efforts in helping me understand this story. Check out Jack Daniel’s at jackdaniels.com.
And to you, have a wonderful holiday season
And until next year, cheers and Slainte mhath
- New York Times Article: When Jack Daniel's Failed to Honor a Slave, an Author Rewrote History
- Fawn Weaver, CEO of Uncle Nearest, Inc. Interview
- Nelson Eddy, Chief Historial of Jack Daniel's Distillery Interview
- Jack Daniel's Legacy by Ben A. Green