Black History Month: The Black Man behind Jack Daniel’s

Photo shows George Green next to Jack Daniel in center.

Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey is the most popular and best-selling spirit in the world. Every year, thousands of tourists visit Lynchburg, Tennessee to see how the beverage is made. I took the tour about a decade ago, and recommend it highly. For almost 150 years, the formula that makes it so successful was credited to Daniel. However, it has recently come to light and been officially part of the lore that a Black man, a former slave, created the process and taught Jack Daniel how to make the most famous whisky in the world.

Nathan “Nearest” Green was born around 1840. Incorrectly spelled “Nearis” in an 1880 census, he was frequently called Uncle Nearest. Green 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, and the first African-American master distiller on record in the United States.

Sometime in the 1850s, when Jack Daniel was a boy, he went to work for a white preacher, grocer and distiller named Dan Call. According to previously well-established 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, the true teacher has recently been identified as Green, one of Call’s workers. Although the Green story has been known to historians and locals for decades, the distillery had officially ignored it.

While slave labor was a part of life in the South prior to the Civil War’s close, Jack Daniel not only never owned slaves but he worked side-by-side with them as a hired hand to Dan Call. Green was one of a few enslaved people who worked for Call who stayed after Emancipation. 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.”

Green served as master distiller on the property. Known as Nearest Green, “Uncle Nearest” (at times misspelled as “Nearis”) Green also played the fiddle and was a lively entertainer, a trait Green descendants say was passed down to his son, Jesse Green.

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. Nathan “Nearest” Green was married to Harriet Green and had eleven children, nine sons and two daughters. 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.

In May 2016, the Brown-Forman Corporation who own the Jack Daniel’s Distillery and the brand, officially recognized Green’s legacy and added it to the history of the brand. July 2017, they created a bottle of whiskey and debuted “Uncle Nearest 1856”. “Uncle Nearest 1856” was created by working with two Tennessee distilleries, none of which were Jack Daniel’s Distillery. As of October 2017, “Uncle Nearest Ultra-Premium Whiskey” is available for purchase online in 46 states and on shelves in a few locations.

Author Fawn Weaver has launched the Nearest Green Foundation to commemorate Green. This includes a new museum, memorial park, book and college scholarships for his descendants. 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 Chattanooga, Motlow State Community College, Auburn University, Enterprise State Community College, College of DuPage and Missouri State University.