History Revised: Meet Nathan Green, the Slave Responsible for Jack Daniel’s Whiskey

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Nathan “Nearis” Green

For years, visitors to Tennessee’s Jack Daniel’s distillery have gotten a version of history that goes down as smooth as a good whiskey: In the 1850s, a preacher and distiller by the name of Dan Call recognized potential in young Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel and taught him how to run a still.

But, as the bestselling whiskey maker approaches its 150th anniversary, The New York Times reports that the brand is revisiting history and embracing a more accurate historical account, in which Daniel was an apprentice to Nearis Green, one of Call’s slaves.

“It’s taken something like the anniversary for us to start to talk about ourselves,” Nelson Eddy, Jack Daniel’s in-house historian told the Times.

The story of Nearis Green was never one that Jack Daniel’s denied, but rather is just beginning to embrace, according to the Times.

Jack Daniel’s spokesman, Svend Jansen, in an e-mail, said the Nearis Green story has long been on the brand’s Wikipedia page, has been relayed by tour guides, and has been accounted for in both biographies about Jack Daniel.

“Telling such uncommon stories during the Jack Daniel Distillery’s 150th anniversary is an appropriate way for us to observe this milestone,” Jansen wrote.

A time line on the company’s home page gives this account: “1850: Mr. Jack goes to work at Dan Call’s distillery, where he learns all phases of the whiskey business.”

Beyond Jack Daniel’s, though, historical accounts of distilleries have mostly left out contributions made by slaves, who made up most of the industry’s labor force, and brought skill to the trade, focusing instead on Scottish, Irish, and German settlers.

Kevin Kosar, senior fellow at the R Street Institute think tank and author of Whiskey: A Global History, says it’s a difficult task to accurately tell business stories as Timesreporter Clay Risen did.

“I was delighted that Risen did what should have been done a long time ago and get past the old-fashioned business history narrative. It’s a difficult history to write because businesses are private and can control their own records and tell their own stories.”

Because of that, Kosar says, American businesses often spin a “great man model” about visionaries who started companies.

While it’s long overdue, now that we know who was the true apprentice to Daniel, the next toast of whiskey goes to Nearis Green.

Nathan “Nearest” Green

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Nathan “Nearest” Green
Born c. 1840
Residence Lynchburg, Tennessee
Occupation Distiller
Known for Teaching Jack Daniel, founder of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey

19th century Jack Daniel bottle jug stencil found 9″ beneath ground surface where Nearest Green distilled whiskey in the mid-to-late 1800s.

Nathan “Nearest” Green (c.1840), incorrectly spelled “Nearis” in an 1880 census,[1] was a formerly enslaved African-American head stiller, commonly referred to now as a master distiller. He is known as being the master distiller who taught distilling techniques to Jack Daniel, founder of the Jack Daniel Tennessee whiskey distillery, the first master distiller for Jack Daniel Distillery[2] and the first African-American master distiller on record in the United States.[1]

Biography[edit]

Sometime in the 1850s, when Jack Daniel was a boy, he went to work for a preacher, grocer and distiller named Dan Call.[3] According to company lore, the preacher was a busy man, and when he saw promise in young Jack, he taught him how to run his whiskey still. However, on June 25, 2016, The New York Times published a story identifying the true teacher as Green, one of Call’s workers.[4] The newspaper said that the Green story has been known to historians and locals for decades, even as the distillery officially ignored it.[4] However, Green’s story — built on oral history and the thinnest of archival trails — may never be definitively proved.[4] USA Today published a story on July 19, 2017 corrected the incorrect spelling of his name (Nearis) and confirmed what Jack Daniel has also confirmed, his correct name was Nathan “Nearest” Green.[3][5]

It is likely that Green was rented to Call by Landis & Green, the firm that owned him. Green was one of a few enslaved people who worked for Call who stayed after Emancipation.[6] When introducing Green to an 8-year old Jack Daniel, Call is quoted as saying, “Uncle Nearest is the best whiskey maker that I know of.” Call is then quoted as saying to Green, “I want [Jack] to become the world’s best whiskey distiller – if he wants to be. You help me teach him.”[7] Green served as master distiller on the property. Known as Nearest Green,[7] “Uncle Nearest” (at times misspelled as “Nearis”)[1][4] Green also played the fiddle and was a lively entertainer, a trait Green descendants say was passed down to his son, Jesse Green. According to one biographer, “Only a few years older than Jack, [Green] taught him all about the still.”[8]

Slavery ended with ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865, and Daniel opened his distillery a year later, immediately employing two of Green’s sons, George and Eli Green. In all, at least three of Green’s sons were a part of the Jack Daniel Distillery staff: George Green, Edde Green, and Eli Green. At least four of Nearest’s grandchildren joined the Jack Daniel team, Ott, Charlie, Otis and Jesse Green. In all, seven straight generations of Nearest Green descendants have worked for Jack Daniel Distillery, with three direct descendants continuing to work there to this day.[1]

Nathan “Nearest” Green was married to Harriet Green and had eleven children, nine sons and two daughters. Seven of those sons and both daughters are listed in the 1880 federal census.[citation needed] Four of their sons, Louis, George, Jesse and Eli, are listed in the 1870 census.[9]

Legacy[edit]

Author, Fawn Weaver launched the Nearest Green Foundation to commemorate Green and this includes a new museum, memorial park, book and college scholarships for his descendants.[10][11] In May 2016, the Brown-Forman Corporation who own the Jack Daniel’s Distillery and the brand, officially recognized Green’s legacy and add it to the history of the brand.[6]

July 2017, they created a bottle of whiskey and debuted “Uncle Nearest 1856”.[12][13][14] “Uncle Nearest 1856” was created by working with two Tennessee distilleries, none of which were Jack Daniel’s Distillery.[6][15] As of October 2017, “Uncle Nearest Ultra-Premium Whiskey” is available for purchase online in 46 states and on shelves in a few locations.

In September 2017, The Nearest Green Foundation, announced the inaugural class of descendants receiving full scholarships to college to continue their ancestor’s legacy of excellence. Those students are currently enrolled at Texas A&M, University of Tennessee at ChattanoogaMotlow State Community CollegeAuburn UniversityEnterprise State Community CollegeCollege of DuPage and Missouri State University.[16]

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