Spirits Confidential with Max Solano
From Slave to Distilling Legend
Without question, the further we delve back into history, the probability of there being inaccuracies and/or lost and missing records or dates becomes greater. We know this! For example, the Reverend Elijah Craig is often credited as being the founding father of the bourbon whiskey category and having his very own distillery established in 1789. I do not think you’ll find too many historians arguing that Elijah Craig did not play a major role; however, what about the many other individuals who were already making this corn-style whiskey in the very same region at the same time as the Reverend such as Watty Boone (yes, a relative of the famous frontiersman and early-day explorer, Daniel Boone), Jacob Briar, Jacob Spears, Evan Williams (who founded his own distillery in 1783), etc. just to name a few? Maybe I am just being controversial and wanting to stir up the proverbial pot…
Let’s shift gears to another important and less discussed American whiskey category: Tennessee whiskey. Tennessee certainly produces a very unique style of whiskey, which is also known as the Lincoln County process. Early American whiskeys were often harsh, and their coarse, uneven flavors made them unpalatable to drink neat. Alfred Eaton, a Tennessean, is associated with the creation of the Lincoln County Process (circa 1825)—a technique that mellows and smoothens whiskey by filtering it through sugar maple charcoal before it ever enters a barrel. Charcoal mellowing reduces the grainy characteristics of freshly distilled whiskey, removes the fatty acids and softens the mouthfeel. There is debate as to whether Eaton deserves all the credit for this technique. Historically, Tennessee whiskey has been produced identically to that of the bourbon-making process. However, it’s been legally defined that for bourbon there can be nothing added to it except for water, to prohibit from anything enhancing the whiskey’s flavor aside from the oak barrel(s) it’s aged in.
For Tennessee whiskey, this unique maple charcoal filtration process is said to not only mellow the whiskey, but also add a subtle sweetness to it. In May of 2013, Tennessee whiskey officially became a distinct style and category. Whereas, bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States (including Tennessee), Tennessee whiskey can only be made in that particular state and has to use the Lincoln County process, with one brand (Benjamin Prichard’s) as the lone exception.
Tennessee is becoming a hotbed of amazing spirits producers. Some of the most notable producers are Corsair, George Dickel, Nelson Green Brier (Belle Meade), Tenn South, Jug Creek, Popcorn Sutton, Pennington Distilling, just to name a few. Of course, the biggest name in Tennessee whiskey in the last century plus is the Old No. 7 Distillery, better known as the Jack Daniel’s Distillery.
Interestingly enough, in 2016, there was an article published by the New York Times alleging that in actuality Jack Daniel himself, learned how to make whiskey from a slave by the name of Nathan “Uncle Nearest” Green. Brown Forman, owner of the Jack Daniel’s Distillery and brand, finally recognized this story as being factual and now pays tribute to Uncle Nearest and the Green family for his great contributions.
The company’s decision to recognize its debt to a slave is a momentous turn in the history of Southern foodways. Even as black innovators in Southern cooking and agriculture are beginning to get their due, the tale of American whiskey is still told as a whites-only affair: about Scottish, Irish and German settlers who brought Old World distilling knowledge to the frontier states of Tennessee and Kentucky. Green’s story changes all that by showing how enslaved people likely provided the brains as well as the brawn in what was an arduous, dangerous and highly technical operation.
According to the co-founder of the independently-owned Uncle Nearest Tennessee whiskey, author and historian, Fawn Weaver, Green was rented out by his owners, a firm called Landis & Green, to farmers around Lynchburg, including Dan Call. Mr. Call was a wealthy landowner and preacher who also employed a teenager named Jack Daniel to do chores around the farm, and, eventually, help make whiskey. When young Jack was ready, Mr. Call made the introduction to Uncle Nearest. Green, already adept at distilling, took Daniel under his wing and, after the Civil War and the end of slavery, went to work for him in his fledgling whiskey operation.
Furthermore, Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey is inspired by the best whiskey-maker the world never knew and the first African-American master distiller on record in the United States. The Uncle Nearest brand, wholly owned by Uncle Nearest, Inc., encompasses a Premium Aged, distilled, aged, bottled and hand-labeled in Tennessee using locally sourced grains and using whiskeys in the range of 8-11 years of age and bottled at a deliciously smooth 100 proof. Aside from this tremendous honor, Green is also thought to have helped perfect the Lincoln County Process. Again, re-writing history.
And, if Fawn’s discoveries weren’t admirable enough, through archives she located the actual farm in the Nashville area where Nearest was enslaved and first distilled whiskey, purchased it with her husband, Keith, and will now be the site of the new distillery in 2019. Cheers, to you, Nearest Green!