Have you ever heard of ‘Uncle Nearest’ and the Nearest Green Distillery? When I first heard of Nearest Green, I was riveted by the story of a Black-and-woman-owned business that honors the legacy of an African American distiller. The distillery’s namesake is a formerly enslaved man who taught Jasper Newton Daniel – known to the world as Jack Daniel — the art of whiskey distilling.
When the extraordinary story of Nearest Green reached entrepreneur and historian Fawn Weaver, she worked to unfurl and verify the facts surrounding the nature of the relationship between Nearest Green and Jack Daniel. She then worked with Green’s descendants to create Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey – a rapidly-growing whiskey brand racking up accolades left and right.
The distillery is located in Shelbyville, TN, a small town located about an hour south of Nashville, making it an ideal destination for a day trip from Music City. The minute I caught wind of Nearest Green and its history, I promptly signed up for a tasting tour and added a visit to the distillery to my family’s Tennessee vacation itinerary.
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We arrived for our tour ready for a taste of whiskey and history, and Nearest Green Distillery certainly delivered on both. Upon arrival, we found our tour group milling about under a pergola in front of the Made in Tennessee Concession Stand, a nod to household names that got their start in Tennessee, like Moon Pies, cotton candy, and Mountain Dew. After a brief introduction from our docent, we were led to a large red refrigerator door that doubles as a secret passage to Philo + Frank’s, the World’s First Non-Alcoholic Speakeasy.
Inside, a guide stands behind a bar to educate guests about Tennessee’s role in the Women’s Suffrage and Temperance Movements. After that presentation, the already-dim lights grew dimmer and the gravelly voice of Emmy Award-winning actor Jeffrey Wright filled the room. Through a short film, Wright tells the extraordinary story of Nathan “Nearest” Green, the first known African American master distiller who taught Jack Daniel the Lincoln County Process, which is the signature process of all Tennessee Whiskey today.
After the video, we learned about the distillery site’s former use as a Tennessee Walking Horse farm as we walked to the Bottling House. It was here that employees explained the whiskey bottling process and challenged us to try to perfectly place a Nearest Green label on one of the bottles. A few of the guests were able to get their labels on perfectly.
Next was the highlight of the tour: the Family Tasting Room. We chose stools along a large circular bar made to resemble a barrel, each space lined with three glasses embossed with the Nearest Green horseshoe brand. The bartenders explained the whiskey-making process and poured their award-winning shots. The Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey flight includes Uncle Nearest 1884, Uncle Nearest Master Blend Edition, and Uncle Nearest 1856. Each of the smooth amber liquids is worthy of a few superlatives. The brand has won a litany of awards since it launched and has been deemed the most awarded American Whiskey or Bourbon of 2019, 2020, and 2021.
We exited the Family Tasting Room and almost immediately entered the Single Barrel Warehouse, which features walls lined with casks of the spirits. In the Master Blender House, Victoria Eady Butler, a fifth-generation descendant of Nearest Green, serves as the whiskey label’s Master Blender.
After the tour, visitors can stop by the welcome center, which doubles as a history museum and distillery gift shop. We enjoyed marveling at the legion of awards the distillery has earned. Outside, we found a beautiful Kelsey Montague mural. The artist famed for creating the “What Lifts You” mural in Nashville, Kelsey also created wings for the Nearest Green Distillery that weaves in elements of Tennessee, such as whiskey, walking horses, and music.
The Nearest Green Tasting Tour is a one-of-a-kind experience and worth the $30 ticket. Tales of African American pasts are like heirlooms, bequeathed as oral history, passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. These stories often tell more dynamic and complex tales that run parallel to other perspectives on a time or place. Unfortunately, these whispered histories were not or could not be forged on paper, which many times left Black communities without the full picture of the legacies they deserve to know.
These pockets of knowledge can be found in the country’s tiny towns and big cities alike, and when these stories are brought to light, the result is an American story, luminous and textured and filled with complexities.
All photos courtesy of Tykesha Burton.
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