Podcast Episode: The Story of Jack Daniel and Uncle Nearest (feat Fawn Weaver of Uncle Nearest)
A New York Times article prompts an author to investigate a story about America's biggest selling whiskey, that had been lost for decades. (Photo Public Domain)
Listen to the Episode
In 2016, Best Selling Author Fawn Weaver was in Singapore with her movie executive husband, when a New York Times International article caught her attention. Was it possible that in an industry known for its Scots-Irish roots, actually had its biggest selling whisky taught to its founder by a slave? But the accompanying photo told a different story. And what Fawn uncovered, changed her life.
The episode includes:
- Fawn Weaver relaxing in Singapore
- The New York Times article and photo that started it all
- The mystery of Nathan "Uncle Nearest" Green
- Young Jack's ancestry
- From Daniel to Waggoner to Call
- Dan Call's many occupations
- Jack meets Nearest Green
- Lady Love and the temperance movement
- From Daniel and Call Distillery to the Jack Daniel's Distillery
- Jack Daniel's first master distiller
- What happened to Nearest Green.
Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore." The full transcript is available on the tab above.
It was the Summer of 2016 and Fawn Weaver, a real estate investor, entrepreneur, and author, was trying to find ways to relax while spending a few days in Singapore. Her movie executive husband Keith was there to attend several board meetings and she decided this would be an excellent way to find a change of scenery and a way to recharge her batteries. With Keith off to his meetings, the restless Fawn was looking for something to do. And little did she know that the New York Times International Edition she was about to pick up would change her life forever.
She found herself drawn to a particular article. It featured a photo from either the late 19th or early 20th century. The image was compelling showing a black worker placed prominently in a center of the photo surrounded by white workers - the title of the article was: “Jack Daniel’s Embraces a Hidden Ingredient: Help From a Slave.”
Within two paragraphs she reads that the well visited Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee had decided that for its 150th anniversary, it was going to change its origin story. No longer were they going to credit a lay preacher, grocer, and distillery owner named Dan Call with teaching Jack Daniel how to make whiskey, but instead they would reveal that it was one of Call’s slaves, a man named Nearis Green.
The Times writer Clay Risen goes on to point out that in the Antebellum south, it wasn’t unusual for slaves to be used not only for their brawn but also for their brains - while slave owners went on to take all the credit. He goes on to show through the several quotes from historians how the ingenuity and impact of African-Americans on the whiskey industry has been lost to the ages.
But the article’s title seems to be asking a harsher question - “why now?” What was prompting Jack Daniel’s to finally acknowledge the true identity of the man who taught their namesake the art of making whiskey? Risen asks - is this a marketing ploy by the company to draw in a younger market, or was it to show racial sensitivity during an era of growing division, or was it simply to get out in front of the story so they could control the narrative?
But as a fan of history, and being an African-American herself, what drew Fawn in was this fascinating idea that in an industry synonymous with Scots-Irish settlers, it may have been a black man’s talents and recipe that helped launch the world’s largest selling whiskey.
And as a writer of books that revolve around love, something was gnawing at her. Why was this black man in the photo sitting in such a prominent position - in a region that was notorious for embraced segregation?
Well Fawn also loves research. To relax herself, she says she spends a couple hours on the Sabbath every week, researching and chasing down subjects that she’s interested in. She calls them her rabbit holes. And with all this time on her hands while in Singapore, she took the opportunity to dig deeper into this story.
The first place she went was Google. But after an extensive search on Nearest Green and Jack Daniel, all she could find were other very recent articles and social media posts creating their own not too flattering narratives around the base information supplied by the Times article.
“I was blown away that there could be a story this important and no one had written about it before. That to me was just baffling.”
After coming back from lunch, Fawn discovered someone had just launched a Wikipedia article on Green. Basically it just paraphrased the Clay Risen article, but it also reminded her of the Jack Daniel biography Risen had mentioned as being a source for some of his research. A book from 1967 called “Jack Daniel’s Legacy,” written by a reporter from Tuscaloosa, Alabama named Ben Green (no relation to the distiller). She decided to order a copy and when she got home she read it cover to cover. And what she found took her by surprise.
“I was floored by two things. The first was how early Nearest is introduced into the story, how often he is spoken about in the story, and how much he and his boys were made a part of the story. They are not on the peripheral, they are literally in the story. And so that was the first thing that I found captivating.
The second is that I wasn’t a Jack Daniel drinker. I didn’t know very much about it. And so I’d see the pictures and I’d see the ads but outside of that I just didn’t know very much. And I remember starting to read the book and probably being about, I don’t know, maybe forty pages or so into the book and my husband walks into the room and I said ‘babe, I really like this guy’ and he said ‘who?’ and I said ‘Jack Daniel.’”
And thus would begin a journey for Fawn that would lead to months in Lynchburg, Tennessee meeting with the Green, Daniel, Motlow, and Call families, the uncovering of over 10,000 documents and artifacts related to Jack Daniel and Nearest Green, and a meeting that would take this inquizitive author and real estate investor from Los Angeles from researcher, to not only starting a foundation in Nearest’s name, but also joining forces with the Jack Daniel Distillery to catalyze positive change in the whiskey industry. And ultimately it would lead to honoring Nearest Green with a spirit that would become the most awarded whiskey in America.
So who was Jack Daniel? We somewhat take for granted the name because we’ve had the brand marketed to us for so much of our lives. And what is it about this 19th century Tennessee whiskey-maker that caught Fawn’s attention? And what of this man Nearest Green? Was he truly the slave that taught the world’s most famous distiller the art of making Tennessee whiskey?
THE STORY OF JACK
Today you knew him as Jack. To those that grew to respect him, he was Uncle Jack. And to his parents Callaway and Lucinda Daniel, he was Jasper Newton Daniel.
Jack was a second generation American. His grandfather Joseph Daniel was born in England, but became a coachman for the wealthy Callaway family in Scotland and fell in love with 15-year-old Elizabeth Callaway. Because her parents opposed the marriage, the couple immigrated to America, just in time for the Revolutionary War - where Joseph picked up a rifle for the American cause.
Their son Callaway married Lucinda Cook and she gave birth to 10 children, with Jasper being the youngest. She died a few months after Jack’s birth. With 10 children to take care of and a farm to take care of, it didn’t take long for Callaway to marry his second wife Matilda.
Now for a boy small in stature like Jack, those early years were spent learning how to work on the farm and deal with the ribbing that came with being the youngest - Jackie boy - they called him. He didn’t like that name. Too childish. From an early age Jack seemed to aspire to adulthood.
Feeling lost in the shuffle, he turned his attention to a house on the banks of Mulberry Creek where Felix and Huldah Waggoner lived. Uncle Felix, as his friends called him, had an inviting home, and only two other kids on the property. Jack felt sure a better life and more respect could be found over there. Suggesting a fear he had for his step-mother, he asked Uncle Felix if he could live there and help out on the farm. He was just 6 years old. Callaway and Matilda agreed, it might be good for him.
Jack went right to farming, learning the ins and outs alongside Felix Waggoner's slaves. By all accounts, he was a highly energetic yet humble child. If given a task, he would do it and make himself ready for the next challenge. And that next challenge would be offered up by a young man of 17 years that would change Jack’s life forever.
DANIEL & CALL
Dan Call was a man of many talents. He was a lay preacher, he owned a local mercantile, and he ran a very successful distilling operation. Now if the first occupation and the last didn’t seem to match up to you, you wouldn’t be alone. Dan’s 15 year old bride Mary Jane was not a fan of Dan’s third occupation. And the layout of the Call farm was likely a result of this frustration.
“His church was on his property, so I mean, it’s the most fascinating thing. You have 338 acres and if you look at it as a triangle, on one tip is his home, one tip is the distillery, and on one tip is his church, so he was keeping his three worlds separate, because he married a teetotaler, and he had a distillery and you had the temperance movement. It was a problem.”
But Dan was at least able to balance things for the moment. One day, Dan happened to be making a trip to the Waggoner’s house when he noticed a young lad working up a storm.
“Who’s that?” Dan pointed to the boy.
“That’s Callaway Daniel’s boy, Jack.” Felix replied. “Was looking for an escape from his home life and wanted to help me on the farm.”
Dan asked, “do you think he’d like to work for me? Mary Jane is a bit overwhelmed at the store and we should could use his help.”
The two made quite an interesting pair. Dan, realizing he and Jack were only 10 years apart in age, suggested they consider each other brothers. And Jack made a brotherly impression right away. As they arrived at the Call’s house, they heard Mary Jane sobbing inside. Apparently their baby was missing and soon it was discovered the little one had crawled under the floorboards. If he were an averaged sized boy this might have been a challenge, but Jack slipped down under the floorboards and rescued the child. And the bond between Dan and Jack was sealed.
Jack spent the next year slopping the hogs, milking the cows, feeding the dogs, and running errands for Mary Jane at the store. In trade, she taught him arithmetic and other skills. But somewhere in Jack’s mind, there was always a curiosity about that still at the end of the property, by Louse Creek.
Finally, Jack summoned up the courage to ask Dan if he could go see the distillery. Dan agreed to take him over and said he’d introduce him to his stillman Nearest.
NATHAN “NEAREST” GREEN
Uncle Nearest, as Dan Call referred to him, was the "best whiskey maker I know of." Now you might say this was just standard distiller braggadocio, but back in those days the 16 still owners in that four mile radius were all brothers in the Masons.
“They all knew each other really well. They would have known each other’s distillers really well. They bought products from each other, so they knew who had the best product. So for him to introduce him that way, it really said what he was doing was not only special but it was established.”
What must have been an exciting day for Jack almost didn’t happen. As they approached the stillhouse, suddenly a rattlesnake lunged at Dan. Jack, with the greatest of fortune, had brought a walking stick with him. He stabbed at the rattlesnake and killed it. It is this moment, according to legend, that Dan Call made up his mind that he was going to help Jack Daniel become the greatest whiskey maker around.
The year was 1856, just four years since Dan had established the business. It would be marked as the first year Jack Daniel ever entered a stillhouse and it was also the year he met Nathan “Uncle Nearest” Green.
Born into slavery in Maryland in 1820, little is known Nearest’s life before entering the employ of Dan Call. And employ is the operative word here. When reaching out to Dan Call’s immediate relatives, they had one request for Fawn.
“One of the things that was really important to their family is that I did the research to show that Dan Call did not own any slaves and I in fact did and that was accurate. His uncle, who had the same name, Daniel Houston Call, he did in fact own slaves but this Dan Call did not. And so the only thing we can really surmise is that Nearest was being rented. And a lot of times, really skilled enslaved people would be rented because they were far too costly to purchase.”
Yet, he was under someone’s control and her research showed that the renting firm of record was Landis & Green.
It will likely be impossible to ascertain where Nearest acquired his skills as a great stillman. Distillery records are sketchy enough in that era but an enslaved man’s records were likely only handed down verbally.
What is known is that Nearest did have his family with him on the Dan Call farm. In fact, it is said that on Jack’s second day there, he met Nearest’s 10 year old son George. And Fawn suggests that it is not beyond the realm of possibilities that Jack and Nearests’ boys had a somewhat familial relationship. Here was a boy brought on as a worker, doing the same work side-by-side with Nearest’s family. The main difference being Jack receiving pay when he began working at the stillhouse.
And apparently once he started working next to Nearest, the two acquired a mutual admiration for each other. Jack, now an apprentice, knew he was learning from a great stillman, and Nearest always gave glowing reports of Jack’s progress to Dan. “He's alive as a cricket.” Probably speaking to Jack’s never ending reserve of energy.
WHO INVENTED THE LINCOLN COUNTY PROCESS?
The special technique Jack learned from Nearest is something called the Lincoln County Process. Also known as leeching, this process goes one step beyond bourbon techniques by having the spirits filtered through sugar maple charcoal. The idea is to take the sting and out of the whiskey for an easier drinking experience. Before Nearest Green’s reemergence in the historical record, many credit Jack Daniel with having invented the Lincoln County process which is the key process that is required for a product to be labeled as Tennessee whiskey, so by extension, what about the argument that Nearest Green invented it?
“Nearest Green 100% did not create the Lincoln County Process. We see that process being utilized in Kentucky in the 18th century, before it ever came to Tennessee. The difference is, that in Kentucky where you first see it, it is still using charcoal for this filtration process but it’s literally only in a few inches, versus, it comes to Tennessee, it becomes a bigger part of it, where people are putting it in more of buckets or barrels or whatever you want to call it. At least the reason why I credit Nearest is not for the invention of it. It is because Tennessee whiskey as we know it today would not exist if it were not for Jack Daniel becoming so famous and that brand being known around the world. We would simply have bourbon.
If you travel outside the US, you know that Tennessee whiskey doesn’t really exist outside the US. On every menu it is read as bourbon. Once you leave our soil people look at it as bourbon, it's all the same. Well, the only reason why it is different here is because Jack and his family fought for there to be a distinguishment to their product. They are the ones who put all of the money behind actually making Tennessee whiskey its own category. So Tennessee whiskey does not exist without Jack and his family, period. That is indisputable. And because Nearest Green is the man who taught Jack Daniel, that is why I say the only thing that is different between Tennessee whiskey and bourbon is what Nearest Green taught. But he most certainly did not invent it.”
So who did invent it? It is suggested that a distiller named Alfred Eaton started using the leeching process in 1825, not far from Cave Spring Hollow. But it is also suggested the technique originated in Africa as a water purification method. The one thing that is definitely known is that several of Dan Call’s neighbors were using the same technique up to a point, but there is a suggestion that Nearest’s was so much better because he switched his charcoal out more often.
FROM DANIEL & CALL TO JACK DANIEL
Life on the Call farm went on without incident. Jack continued to learn the trade from Nearest, but he also knew that to be successful, he’d need to make sure people were buying what they were producing. At 10 years of age, he started hatching schemes with his new friend William Riley “Button” Waggoner. The idea would be to load up a wagon and take whiskey south to sell in nearby Fayetteville, TN and then maybe even go as far as Huntsville, AL. He had no idea how important this skill of selling whiskey was going to become.
As the temperance movement gathered steam, a prohibitionist named Lady Love came to Lincoln County to have a revival. Mary Jane persuaded Dan to attend, which he half heartedly did. Each time Lady Love spoke of the demon whiskey, Mary Jane nudged Dan in the side, whispering “she’s talking about you!”
Soon, Lady Love had the community turning against him. His church meetings kept getting smaller and smaller. Having the largest whiskey operation in the area was not turning out to be a benefit for his preaching. His first step was to offer the distillery to 13-year old Jack. Amazingly though, Jack took a step back and consulted with his guardian Felix Waggoner. Felix suggested that whiskey had its bad side, yes, but it also had its medicinal qualities and in the right hands could be handled properly. Felix also suggested Jack prepare for the tax man in the near future and also suggested moving the distillery to get closer to the railroad at Tullahoma. But to do that, he would need money. And Dan’s had made another decision that was going to make raising money very difficult - he would no longer carry alcohol at the store. But a highly confident Jack told Dan, give him four months and he’d no longer need the store’s sales. He was heading for Huntsville.
This decision to hit the road as a salesman for the newly christened Jack Daniel Distillery meant he needed someone he could depend on to run things. And at some point around this time Jack named Nathan “Uncle Nearest” Green ‘ as his new company’s first master stiller.
JACK THE SALESMAN
Dan Call no longer headed to the stillhouse, but until Jack could raise enough capital, he allowed the Jack Daniel Distillery to remain.
Jack and Button made their first trip to Huntsville in September of 1860.
Jack would gather enough meat to cover the wagon bed and then put some meat over the jugs of whiskey to hide them. Then they would lay straw and hay on top of all of that and top things off with sacks of grain, wheat, and flour. And because the sheriff and his deputies would not allow whiskey to be sold while the officers were on duty, they were make their wagon runs between midnight and early morning and then by daybreak they would sell their meat and supplies to the grocery stores and butchers. They made this trip every week or two until Button was called off to serve in the Confederate army. The Civil War had commenced and Jack was left to ride the dangerous roads himself, at only 14 years old.
He helped a few Confederates along the way and quenched the thirst of some of the Union soldiers. He carried a pocket knife with him but never a gun.
He saw Huntsville survive unscatched while Federal troops occupied the town, but they finally burned it when Sherman’s troops were doing the same in Georgia. Even with Jack’s small size, there was always a danger he might be considered a deserter, if he was stopped during his travels. Confederate deserters were usually hung or shot almost immediately.
The area was a mixed bag for the Union and Confederate forces. Shelbyville was referred to as that union hole by Confederate general Braxton Bragg who set up his headquarters in Tullahoma. Button was captured by Federal troops and sent home. Dan Call enlisted in General Nation Bedford Forrest’s famous Escort service and sustained a wound to his hand.
There was one real moment of tension on the Dan Call farm during the war. Yankee soldiers were passing through on a march from Tullahoma to Fayetteville. Jack went to Mary Jane and offered to hide the family’s silver down the well and make the house look abandoned. Then he ran back to the distillery where he, Nearest and the boys took barrels of whiskey up into the woods. As Jack said “it's rough enough to have these Yankees on a sober, but it would be a lot worse if they were drunk."
When the Yankees reached Callaway Daniel's house he was sick in bed. The years after his second wife Matilda passed had not been kind. Within weeks of the Yankees foray, he would die an impoverished and broken man. Through his guardian Felix, Jack would receive a mere $48.50 from his destitute father’s estate.
For Jack, the plans he had hatched for a new distillery nearer to the Tullahoma railroad had been halted by war and uncertain times. For Nearest Green, for the first time in his life, there was a chance for him to choose his own dreams. With 11 children and his wife Harriet, emancipation had become the law of the land, although it was sure to be slow and uncertain in the South.
So what happened to Nearest Green, Jack Daniel’s first master distiller? Join me in the next episode for the second half of the story of Jack and Nearest.
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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I want to send out a huge thank you to Fawn Weaver the CEO of Uncle Nearest and Nelson Eddy the Chief Historian of Jack Daniel for spending so much time with me, helping me to understand this amazing story. I can’t wait to share the conclusion where we learn more about Nathan “Uncle Nearest” Green, Fawns research, and the impact this story is having today.
And until next time, cheers and Slainte mhath
- Interviews with Fawn Weaver of Uncle Nearest and Nelson Eddy of Jack Daniel's Distillery.
- Jack Daniel's Legacy by Ben A. Green
- New York Times article: Jack Daniel's Embraces Hidden Ingredient