Jack Daniels Whiskey Owes a Debt to Former Slave

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Nathan “Nearest” Green (second from left).
Tamara Shiloh

“There’s no part of America’s history that Black folks weren’t a part of in some form or fashion.” I say this all the time, then I learned about Jack Daniel’s. The truth in this statement never ceases to amaze me.

Nathan “Nearest” Green, born into slavery in 1820, was an African-American head stiller (commonly referred to as a master distiller). Emancipated after the Civil War, Nathan became a master distiller, teaching his techniques to Jack Daniel, founder of the Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey distillery.

It is written that when Jack Daniel was a boy, he went to work for Dan Call: a preacher, grocer, and distiller. This is where he learned to operate a whiskey still.

Nearest Green was owned by Landis & Green Company, who hired him out to work for Dan Call, the distiller. Green was one of a few enslaved people who continued to work for Call after slavery ended.

Jack Daniel’s and Nearest Green’s lives would cross when Call introduced Jack Daniel to Green saying: “Uncle Nearest is the best whiskey maker that I know of.”

Call then said to Green, “I want Jack to become the world’s best whiskey distiller—if he wants to be. You help me teach him.”

The rest is Black history.

Green served as master distiller. Only a few years older than Jack, Green taught him all about the still. He also played the fiddle and was a lively entertainer, a trait that was passed down to his son, Jesse Green.

In 1866, a year after slavery ended with ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Daniel opened his distillery and immediately employed two of Green’s sons, George and Eli. Seven straight generations of Nearest Green’s descendants have worked for Jack Daniel’s Distillery, with three direct descendants continuing to work there as of November 2017.

In July 2017, Uncle Nearest, Inc. created a whiskey honoring the legacy of Nearest Green. Debuting as Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Whiskey, it was created by working with two Tennessee distilleries, but not Jack Daniel’s Distillery.

In August 2017, the Brown-Forman Corporation, which owns the Jack Daniel’s Distillery and brand, officially recognized Green as its first head stiller—now called a master distiller—and added him to the company’s website. In October 2017, Brown-Forman added his legacy to its official tours.

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