It’s easily one of the most fascinating stories in the history of the American beverage industry. Uncle Nearest, the surging Tennessee whiskey producer, owes its name to a former slave that taught Jack Daniel how to distill. Today, the Black-owned brand is home to a master blender directly related to that pioneering individual known as Nearest Green.
Let’s back up a bit. Uncle Nearest turned 5 this summer, originally launched in July 2017. Its founder, Fawn Weaver, pursued the brand after reading a New York Times piece about Nearest Green. The article described Green’s prowess for whiskey-making and the wisdom he passed along to one of the most famous names around, let alone the spirits realm. Turns out, Jack Daniel’s came to be courtesy of the teachings of Nathan “Nearest” Green. He would become the nation’s first documented Black master distiller at that iconic whiskey house.
Weaver found the story so moving that she headed to Lynchburg, Tennessee, home of Jack Daniel’s. Surely, she thought there could be a larger story told here, and one that most people still somehow hadn’t heard. Along the way, she became absorbed in the community and history of the small town and ended up staying there for good. En route, she had the opportunity to take on a historic property and make it the home base for Uncle Nearest.
Today, Uncle Nearest is winning awards left and right for its remarkable whiskies. The story, too, continues to captivate. The spirits are being made by Victoria Eady Butler, the great-great-granddaughter of Uncle Nearest. Earlier this year, Victoria was named Master Blender of the Year for the second consecutive year by Whiskey Magazine’s American Icons of Whiskey.
“I am extremely humbled and grateful to receive such a prestigious honor,” Butler said of the recent triumph. Her great-great-grandfather’s contributions to the field have always been known in Lynchburg, but now that legacy is deservedly stretching out.
Some things are simply inherited. Butler has no formal training but clearly a knack for assembling a world-class spirit. “As for learning the craft of blending, that’s difficult to explain, as I’ve never taken classes to learn the art of blending whiskey. The skills that my great-great-grandfather possessed when he was making whiskey, I believe I possess when it comes to blending. Whisky is in my blood!”
Butler is beyond grateful for her current role. She’s gone from casually enjoying a sip of Maker’s Mark 46 now and again to producing some of the most celebrated whiskies in the country. “It’s the most rewarding experience imaginable,” she said. Butler still enjoys the spirit, especially neat with a good cigar or as a cocktail with friends and family.
Her role at the brand is multifaceted and it keeps her on her feet as well as brings her lots of joy. “It’s not uncommon for me to be blending whiskey one day, speaking at an event the next day, and ending the week at the distillery talking to our guests that come from across the country to tour our beautiful home.”
It’s a role that will hopefully shake up an industry that remains mostly stuck in its ways. Whether it be wine, beer, spirits, or some related field, the major positions continue to be dominated by white males. Things are changing, but much bigger reforms are in order to make the realm fair, inclusive, and reflective. Call it equity or a proper salute to the late Nearest Green — it’s a necessity.
How do we get there? “By educating those in decision-making positions and then implementing action towards bringing about change,” Butler said. “It simply isn’t enough to just talk about it.”
Let’s raise a glass to an extraordinary brand by way of a cocktail that it devised.
Combining whiskey, raspberry jam, and citrus, this cocktail certainly sticks with you in the best of ways and lives up to its name. The drink was co-created by Butler and Speedy Krantz.
- 1 1/2 ounces Uncle Nearest 1884
- 1 teaspoon raspberry preserves
- 1/2 ounce simple syrup
- 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
- 2 dashes of orange bitters
- Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice.
- Shake well and then strain into a cocktail glass.
- Garnish with a lemon twist.
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