It’s not unusual to see whiskey companies utilize history within their brands. Often a throwback to a brand that once was, there’s something about history that makes whiskey more appealing. Time, age, history - these conjure images of barrels aging in warehouses, men gathered in saloons, and old copper pot stills set in front of stone building walls that were built to survive the ages.
As bourbon and American Whiskey surge in popularity, it seems that often times the whiskey comes first, and the story next. After all whiskey is a business, and companies need to stand out in the crowded marketplace.
I had a chance to speak with Fawn Weaver, the person behind not only the research that went into uncovering the Nearest Green story, but Uncle Nearest 1856 whiskey as well. I wanted to specifically talk about the brand she’s created to find out how the whiskey inside the bottle shares ties with the history that’s been uncovered.
Uncle Nearest 1856 is a storied brand, but not what you might be thinking. In this case it’s not about taking a few pieces from the history books and inserting them into the brand’s marketing. Instead, the history came first, and the whiskey is being built around it. According to Weaver, “It is usually the case these days where a brand will source the whiskey...then after they have that they say let’s come up with a brand...where we were the exact opposite. Before we ever launched the brand more than 2,500 hours had gone into researching the story of Nearest Green.” Weaver goes on to say, “So then we had this great story, and it became a challenge to make sure that our whiskey exceeded, or at least matched the story. And so the amount of time, the amount of money, good lord the amount of money, that we have put in to make sure our whiskey was truly premium, and to make sure it really honored not only Nearest, but honored his family members that are still alive.”
The story starts with Jack Daniel’s. Founded in the 1875, Jack Daniel’s has become the top selling American Whiskey in the world. And while many of us might think of their staple product as mass-produced low proof whiskey, the truth is there is a quite a bit of history behind the brand. That history, which was not well understood or well known until recently but was also not necessarily a secret, involved another man. Nearest Green (legal name Nathan Green, but no one including his family and friends, ever called him by his legal name; his name has been misspelled by some as "Nearis" was, it turns out, a black slave who taught Jack Daniel how to distill.
A June 2016 New York Times article by Clay Risen is the first time many heard this story, at least what was known about it at the time. The article is attributed to inspiring Weaver’s research, but It also inspired questions about Brown-Forman’s integrity, the company that owns Jack Daniel’s. Many wondered if they intentionally sought to discredit Green by remaining quiet and whitewashing him from their version of the history.
We’ll never know the company’s true intent at the time, but the reality of the situation was there wasn’t a lot of information readily available to piece together the history, or at least it seems that effort had never been made by the company. It could have been simply lack of a clear vision as to how to incorporate that story into their brand. Regardless, it meant one thing. The story remained largely untold.
After reading Risen’s article, Weaver was so inspired she decided to develop both a book and a movie, but that had to start with uncovering the history. Clue by clue, historical document by historical document, and person by person as she reached out to living descendants of Green and those people who could share information about the history. Her discoveries ultimately inspired the whiskey brand - Uncle Nearest 1856.
Considering this history is very much Jack Daniel’s untold history as well, I was curious how the folks at Brown-Forman might be reacting to a separate brand borne from the same roots. According to Weaver, “Our I.P. counsel and their I.P. counsel speak on a regular basis. If you go to the Jack Daniel website the first thing that pops up is the story of Nearest Green...that’s my research. If you go into their visitor’s center there is a large installment that is now there to permanently honor Nearest. Most of what’s there we helped them to do. My team helped to pull that together.” She goes on to say, “What I get more than anything is a gratitude...for doing the research because it helped them with their story.”
So onto the whiskey. Currently, Uncle Nearest 1856 offers two products - Premium Aged Whiskey and Tennessee Silver Whiskey (formerly Premium Silver Whiskey). They’re both distilled elsewhere as construction of the Nearest Green Distillery is still underway, but the company has developed a unique process for the creation of the whiskeys nonetheless. This process was developed by Sherrie Moore, who incidentally spent 31 years at Jack Daniel’s Distillery and retired as their Director of Whiskey Operations, and after retirement became a real estate agent. As fate would have it, she helped Weaver purchase the original Jack Daniel’s distillery, and in so doing offered to come out of “whiskey” retirement to help if Weaver ever decided to make a whiskey. Moore now holds the same role with Uncle Nearest that she held with Jack Daniel’s.
Uncle Nearest currently works with five different distilleries to help produce and process both its Premium Aged -originally sourced- and Tennessee Silver. Two of the Tennessee distilleries have Weaver under strict non-disclosures, causing her to comment, “I think the whole non-disclosure thing in this industry is silly.” Be that as it may, Uncle Nearest puts the whiskey through a combination of processes to make it their own. In addition to blending for consistency, this includes shipping about 180 barrels at a time to Kentucky for diatomaceous earth filtering, a common process in wine but not so much in whiskey according to Weaver.
The company has also started distilling, which currently takes place at Corsair Distillery. While some of the barrels the company is laying down will eventually become their aged whiskey, Tennessee Silver might be the more interesting of the two current products because it is subjected to their unique process from start to finish. According to Weaver, it’s a “fully finished product that takes longer than every other clear spirit on the market.”
The process to make it is quite complicated. This of course starts with a unique mashbill Weaver uncovered during her research, though she notes, “The exact recipe that Nearest used - I don’t think we will ever know that.” The mashbill they are using does, however, share ties with local history she’s uncovered. “Our Silver recipe is under lock and key at a bank here called Farmer’s Bank. And Farmer’s Bank is the bank that Jack started in 1888 and then his nephews took over and they continued to run it. Our recipe is an authentic 19th century recipe that has not been used since 1912. And it utilizes corn malt. And the reason why we have it at the bank that Jack founded is Nearest’s grandson - Townsend Green - he moved to Indianapolis and was a successful businessman up there...he was more comfortable keeping his money with Jack’s family than in Indianapolis.” Talking about the recipe relative to what Green might have used, Weaver goes on to say, “Even the recipe that we utilize, the amount of corn malt adjusted depending on the time of year...there are three separate recipes...the level of corn malt and barley adjust.”
Going deeper into explaining the distillation process, Weaver explains, “We brew it like you would a bourbon, and we ferment it the same way. The brew is a day, the fermentation is another five days. And then after the fermentation we have a triple charcoal mellowing system that is proprietary, because Sherrie Moore hand drew it and then took it to engineers and had the engineers build it out. And it took a lot of back and forth to get the system to work the way we needed it to work. But it’s essentially three separate steel chambers, and within each chamber are three chambers. So by the time it finishes its process of rising to the top of each of the chambers it’s gone through nine charcoal mellows.”
Now about that charcoal mellowing. One of the pieces of history no one can seem to completely pinpoint is where the Lincoln County Process, a process by which whiskey distillate is filtered through sugar maple charcoal before going into barrels for aging, actually originated from. Based on Weaver’s research she believes Green was integrally involved in perfecting the process, as we see it used in making current day Tennessee Whiskey, which she believes took place in 1856. According to Weaver, it was “originally used in Kentucky, going through one inch of charcoal, [but it was] not called the Lincoln County Process.” She goes on to say, “It is my belief that the charcoal mellowing process, more likely than not, began in West Africa. And the reason why I believe that is if you think about every aspect of bourbon or whiskey, we can track every aspect of it to either Ireland, to Scotland, to France. We can track every portion of it. But somehow, some way, charcoal mellowing drops out of the sky and lands in Kentucky in the 1700’s. So I kind of tell people if something lands in Kentucky or Tennessee or anywhere in this area in the 1700’s and no one has been given credit, give credit to a slave on general principle.” Backing that theory up, she adds, “But in West Africa they were using charcoal to purify their food and to filter their water. So you have these guys coming here and distilling this whiskey and tasting it and going man this is some harsh stuff. And looking at it and going hey, I bet you we can use what we use to filter our water on this. And so that’s where I believe the process came from. But the reason why I say that Nearest helped perfect it is because the lengthening of the one inch to a longer pathway as it going through by all accounts what Jack Daniel was using...was everything he brought from the Dan Call farm in terms of the processes and how he did it. And that’s why we utilize that date as when he became distiller for Dan Call.”
After charcoal mellowing it’s put into charred #4 barrels at 110 proof, the same proof Nearest Green was known to use. With respect to Tennessee Silver, which is also aged in barrels; “When it comes out of the charred barrel, when we pull it out it, [it] has a good amount of smokiness to it. But it’s usually about the color...just a little lighter than our aged when it comes out. And then we use the natural charcoal from coconut shells to pull all of the color out.” Weaver goes on to say, “If the color is stubborn, we’ve had the process take a full week...in some cases one batch has taken us a full month because we just could not get that color out.” Weaver proudly notes, “Every single batch we keep working on it until it is perfect. Right now when we are still getting it right we dont let anything leave the distillery until it’s perfect.”
While the distillation is currently taking place at Corsair Distillery, aged whiskey is being sourced from five distillers, and barrels are being shipped up to Kentucky for final diatomaceous earth filtration after being dumped, a distillery build out is underway and the plan in to bring as much of the process in-house as possible. You might be thinking the distillery would be constructed at the original distillery site. But challenges that could not be overcome made that impossible. Green distilled for Daniel at one place, the Dan Call farm, which is where the original Jack Daniel’s Distillery likely was until June 1884 when Daniel purchased a distillery down the road. The original intent was to rebuild that distillery, but rolling hills and roads in and out were not conducive for heavy truck traffic so those plans were abandoned. The site was purchased however, and Weaver will host VIP tour groups a few times a week for those in the industry in order to educate them so they can hear the story directly from her. Seeking a more appropriate location, the Uncle Nearest 1856 distillery site is located at the original Sand Creek farm in Shelbyville. It’s a halfway point between Lynchburg and Nashville and ideally located according to Weaver; “Anyone travelling this way will have to pass the gates of our distillery to get here.”
It should be noted that many of Nearest Green’s descendants are alive today, and Weaver has worked closely with them to uncover the history. She also established the Nearest Green Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicating to Green’s legacy. The foundation has numerous projects underway, including the Nearest Green Legacy Scholarship program that seeks to help Green’s descendants through college will fully-paid scholarships.
Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Whiskey Tasting Notes
Company: Uncle Nearest Whiskey
Distillery: Sourced from numerous undisclosed distilleries
Age: NAS (Aged a minimum of 7 years per the company’s website)
MSRP: $60 (2018, price will vary by market)
Nose: There’s a very distinct yet unrecognizable aroma I can’t quite put my finger on. I’d best describe it as a blend of grain, citrus, and burnt oak. It’s not like anything else I’ve smelled in a whiskey before, and the aroma is relatively potent for the proof.
Palate: The distinct aroma carries forward into the sip, meeting the tongue with immediate intensity. The grainy, citrusy notes are present, but there’s a bit of a spicy pop as well. Again like the nose, the taste is quite unique and in some ways indescribable.
Finish: A burst of spice leads the charge, followed by burnt brown sugar sweetness. A touch of oak comes into play as well, but overall the spicy sweet elements are most prominent. It lasts relative long, leaving a good amount of stickiness behind as the whiskey seems to do a good job coating the mouth during the sip.
The sample used for this review was provided at no cost courtesy of Uncle Nearest Whiskey. We thank them for the sample and for allowing us to review it with no strings attached.