Less than 50 kilometers north of the Alabama border, one of the world’s largest whiskey makers goes about his business as Christmas approaches.
The Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee, about an hour’s drive from Huntsville, has a barrel Christmas tree up front, a Christmas tree built from barrels of whiskey. Garland hangs across the porch of Daniel’s first business office, in front of the cave spring that provides water for over one hundred million bottles of whiskey a year.
We went for a weekday visit on December 6th and took the ‘Angel’s Share Distillery Tour’ which costs $ 35 per person and includes a tasting at the end of five Jack Daniel’s varieties, in sufficiently small samples. so that no one leaves drunk, our guide tells us. The 90-minute tours are offered from 9 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. daily.
A major feature of the tour now includes a discussion of Nearest Green, which in the 1850s taught a young Jack Daniel – perhaps from the age of eight – the art of whiskey making.
Green was a slave at the time who was hired to Lutheran minister Dan Call, who owned the still. Green remained to work with Call after the end of the Civil War and the slaves were freed.
According to a 1967 biography of Jack Daniel by Tuscaloosa News reporter Ben Green, “Jack Daniel’s Legacy,” Daniel’s parents passed on Call’s story telling Nearest Green that “I want him (Jack Daniel) to become the world’s best whiskey distiller – if he wants to be. You help me teach him.
Nearest Green’s whiskey-making method involved smelting charcoal, in which the bourbon is purified through barrels of charcoal made from sugar maple trees. It is believed that the tradition of carbon filtration was brought by slaves from West Africa, where it was used to purify water.
“Uncle Nearest is the best whiskey maker I know,” Call reportedly told young Jack Daniel.
Call and Daniel started making whiskey with Nearest Green as their master distiller. After Nearest’s death, his two sons, George and Eli, continued to work at the distillery.
Jack Daniel never had children, but by the time of his death in 1911 he had left the distillery to his nephew, Lem Motlow, who had also worked alongside Green’s sons. Motlow ran the business from 1911 until his death in 1947.
During Prohibition, a 1920-33 nationwide liquor ban that began even earlier in Tennessee in 1910, the business had to survive by operating a hardware and general store in the town square of Lynchburg, specializing in harnesses for mules. Even after the ban, the distillery did not reopen until 1938. Today the hardware building serves as a two-story souvenir shop, selling all manner of paraphernalia related to Jack Daniel’s whiskey, including stamped barrels, clothing, shot glasses, coasters, fridge magnets and just about anything a logo can be stamped on.
It is a recommended stop after visiting the distillery.
In the lobby of the Jack Daniel Distillery Visitors Center, the story of Nearest Green is told through exhibits including a genealogical chart of Green’s descendants through his son, George Green. Many of Green’s descendants and the descendants of Daniel’s nephew continued to work at the distillery. Seven generations of the Green family worked at the distillery.
The Brown-Forman Corporation, the maker of Old Forester Kentucky bourbon whiskey based in Louisville, Ky., Purchased the Jack Daniel Distillery in 1956.
Posters in the lobby also mention the Nearest Green Foundation and the Nearest Green Distillery in Shelbyville, Tennessee, founded in 2017 by CEO Fawn Weaver, the first black woman to run a major spirits brand. Nearest Green Distillery also employs descendants of the Daniel and Green families.
While the story of Jack Daniel and Nearest Green’s collaboration is well known in Lynchburg, it became an internet sensation in 2016 after the current owners of the company presented the story to the New York Times.
Weaver, creator of the Uncle Nearest Whiskey brand, said many people misinterpreted the story as Daniel stealing a recipe from Nearest Green. The 1967 biography in which those close to Daniel gave Green all the credit shows that was not true, she said.
âPeople clung to this because ‘here is another story of black people being held back – it was in hiding and it was stolen,'” Weaver told John Hammontree in episode 15 of the Reckon podcast. âIt was all about the race. But then I read his biography, at the height of the civil rights era. You didn’t have to name anyone other than Jack. You would have been perfectly fine to say that Dan Call taught him. You didn’t need to bring Nearest into the story at all, which told me that Jack and his family wanted to make sure that Nearest’s legacy was never forgotten.
Weaver started the Nearest Green Foundation to provide scholarships to the descendants of Nearest Green, funded by sales of Uncle Nearest Premium whiskey and the book âJack Daniel’s Legacyâ. A museum and memorial park also commemorates Nearest Green.
âJack never hid Nearest,â Weaver said. âHe never claimed he was the still. He always gave Nearest credit and Nearest was paid as the best still.
Jack Daniel and Nearest Green had a mutually beneficial relationship, she said. After the Civil War, Nearest was one of the wealthiest black men in the region, “wealthier than many of his white neighbors,” Weaver said. âHe was making a lot of money.
While there were 16 other distillers in the area who made whiskey by similar methods, Daniel brought a business sense to them that made their brand stand out, Weaver said. âJack Daniel was a brilliant businessman,â she said. “He was a genius in public relations.”
As of 2017, Nearest Green has been listed on Jack Daniel’s website as its first Master Distiller and its mention is scattered throughout the tours and educational exhibits. Unfortunately, no photograph of him is known. A photograph of his sons George and Eli Green with Jack Daniel, Lem Motlow and other distillery workers is prominently displayed in the lobby, with explanations of their roles early in the company’s history.
Views, smells, tastes
While touring the distillery, visitors can see where sugar maple wood is burned for charcoal. The fires are started with a whiskey accelerator, to avoid putting foreign tastes such as lighter fluid into the wood. Our guide sprayed Whiskey Accelerator on our hands and said it was safe to taste. This led to the spectacle of eight tourists licking their hands.
The next stop was the cave which is the source of water for the exploitation of whiskey, both as an ingredient and as a coolant. There is a statue of Jack Daniel called “Jack on the Rocks” at the mouth of the cave and the guide offered to take our picture with it. Next, we walked through Jack Daniel’s first office, where he was leading business operations. It has changed little since the early 1900s.
We then visited the buildings where the smelting and fermentation of charcoal takes place. We had the opportunity to take several tank sniffs. The brew is so strong at this point that each puff ended with tourists overwhelmed by the carbonated aroma and quickly withdrawing. We toured the bottling operation, where employees put labels on the different varieties of Jack Daniel’s as the bottles rolled by on a conveyor belt.
The tasting took place in a barrel cellar where the whiskey ages, generally four to six years. Leaks on the barrels are obvious and part of the normal process. The whiskey flowing out of the barrels is nicknamed the âSharing of the Angelsâ, hence the name of the tour.
Even for those with no taste for whiskey, the tour is a medley of exciting sights, smells and tastes and a remarkable history lesson.
The nearest Green Distillery, about 16 miles northwest of Shelbyville, Tennessee, offers tours on weekends only, Saturdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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