Jack Daniel’s stands as one of the most iconic American brands and most popular spirits in the world. Yet while the whiskey and its eponymous founder have become dominant names in American liquor lore, the person perhaps most responsible for its success—an enslaved man named Nathan “Nearest” Green, who taught Jack Daniel the art of whiskey distillation—went unacknowledged for more than 150 years.
Researchers are discovering that the role enslaved people played in America’s early whiskey-making went beyond manual labor like gathering grain and building barrels. Distillation was notoriously laborious and tedious work, and some plantation owners—including George Washington and Andrew Jackson—used enslaved workers to run their distilleries. According to American spirit writer Fred Minnick, author of Bourbon: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of An American Whiskey, brokers at auctions of enslaved people “would notate distiller-trained slaves, many of whom previously worked on Caribbean sugarcane plantations and contributed to the distillation of sugar’s byproduct, molasses, to create rum. These skill sets earned premiums for their owners and made them attractive to buyers.” Overall, however, documentation of enslaved workers’ contributions to early American whiskey production remains sparse, as few enslavers saw fit to credit their achievements for posterity.
An Enslaved Distiller Shares His Knowledge With a Young Orphan
Little is known about Green’s early years, beyond that he was born in Maryland in 1820. It’s not clear, for instance, if he was born into bondage or was enslaved later in life. What is clear is that, by the mid-1800s, Green had gained renown as a skillful whiskey distiller in Lincoln County, Tennessee—so much so that his enslavers, the Landis & Green company, often rented Green out to area farms and plantations eager to partake of his whiskey-making skills. It was in this capacity that Green met young Jasper “Jack” Daniel and forged what would become an iconic partnership.
Around 1850, Daniel, a 7-year-old orphan looking for work and escape from a tough family life, found his way to the property of Dan Call, a Lynchburg preacher, grocer and distiller who had been previously credited with teaching Daniel how to distill whiskey. While working as a laborer on Call’s farm, Daniel took an ardent interest in Call’s distillery. Eventually, after much badgering from the young Daniel, Call introduced him to Green, who he called “the best whiskey maker that I know of,” according to a 1967 biography, Jack Daniel’s Legacy. He instructed the enslaved man to teach the young boy his distilling magic.
Green taught Daniel “sugar maple charcoal filtering” (known today as the Lincoln County Process), a universally accepted critical step in the making of Tennessee whiskey. With this process, whiskey is filtered through wooden charcoal chips before being placed in casks for aging, a technique food historians believe was inspired by similar charcoal filtering techniques used to purify water and foods in West Africa. The process imparted a unique smoothness of flavor that set Jack Daniel’s whiskey apart from its competitors.
As years passed, Daniel continued to learn from Green, building a friendship with his mentor and eventually perfecting the Lincoln County Process and selling his whiskey throughout Lynchburg and in surrounding towns. By the time the Civil War began, Daniel had developed into an adept salesman, peddling his smooth brand of Tennessee whiskey to soldiers and cementing his varietal as the most popular in the area.
Once the war ended and emancipation came, Daniel bought Call’s distillery, renaming it after himself. Shortly after, Daniel opened a larger distillery on a nearby plot of land where Green’s sons Lewis, Eli and George also began work. Their employment began a tradition of more than seven generations of the Green family working either for or with the Jack Daniels brand.
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Uncovering Nearest Green’s Story
So why, despite Green’s role, and Daniel’s seeming admiration for him, were his contributions obscured?
Early company record-keeping was notoriously spotty, making it easy for facts and histories to become obscured and forgotten.
“I don’t think it was ever a conscious decision” to leave the Greens out of the company’s story,” Phil Epps, the global brand director at Brown-Forman, told The New York Times in a 2016 interview. Brown-Forman bought Jack Daniel’s from the Daniel family in 1965 for $20 million (about $190 million in 2022 dollars).
But it took time before the company made that conscious decision to include Green.
In 2016, as the brand’s 150th anniversary approached, the company began gathering ideas on how to finally pay its due to Green. It vowed—via distillery tours, social media posts, and official company histories—to begin acknowledging Green’s role.
Fawn Weaver, a researcher and businesswoman, visited the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Tennessee after learning about Green and Jack Daniel’s plans to honor him. After going on three distillery tours, and not hearing a single mention of Green, Weaver threw herself into researching his life and work, gathering more than 10,000 documents that verified—and expanded on—Green’s importance to the Jack Daniel’s brand.
Her findings: Green not only taught Daniel how to distill, he also began to work with him in a partnership after Emancipation and became (through designation by Jack Daniel himself) what is believed to be the first-ever Black master distiller in America. Weaver also discovered that Green’s given enslaved name was Nathan and that Nearest was a name he likely adopted after Emancipation.
By 2017, after Weaver’s research gained national attention, Jack Daniel’s parent company began committing to its earlier promises by recognizing Green as the brand’s first master distiller on its company website, giving pride of place to Jack Daniel and Nearest Green’s legacy-defining partnership.