America’s First Black Master Distiller
Everyone has heard of Jack Daniels, provided they don’t live under a rock. It’s a distillery so historic that it’s since become synonymous with Tennessee whiskey. However, what many people may not know, is the legacy of Nathan “Nearest” Green. He was the man who taught Jack everything he knew about distillation. He was also responsible for the creation of the Lincoln County Process, a hallmark of the unique character of Tennessee Whiskey.
Who Was Uncle Nearest?
Nearest was a slave who worked on a farm run by the Reverend Dan Call. It was there that he honed his skill as a whiskey distiller over the years. He began using charcoal filtering for the whiskey he made, a practice common in Africa to purify water. This process separated his whiskey from what was being produced by local competitors.
Nearest would take charcoal made from sugar maple and pack it into a straining device to create a filter. He would then filter his un-aged whiskey to strip away oils and impurities. This lightened and filtered the whiskey before putting it into the barrel. It resulted in a more delicate flavor and allowed the barrel to impart more wood flavor.
His closely guarded secret at the time allowed Nearest to create a whiskey that won widespread acclaim and cemented an enduring legacy.
Nearest Meets Jack Daniel
It wasn’t until later that Jack Daniels came to work on the Call farm. There, he grew interested in the art of distillation. However, once Call allowed him to meet Nearest and begin spending some time learning distillation, it was Nearest that taught Jack everything he knew. Without Nearest’s expertise and guidance we might never have known the name Jack Daniel.
Nearest kept on distilling while Jack used his bourgeoning entrepreneurial talents and business acumen to sell the whiskey as fast as it could be made.
Soon, Reverend Call’s parish grew frustrated with the success and scale of his distillation operations. They felt that he was too engaged in acts they deemed ungodly. The parishioners complained to the reverend that he was becoming greedy due to his time spent selling whiskey. Further, they believed the art of distilling, in general, to be questionable. So, Call turned over the keys to Jack and Nearest to run the distillery for him. That way, the reverend could give himself some distance from the operation to appease his congregation.
After the Civil War ended, Green decided to stay at the farm and distill as a free man. He knew and loved the art of distilling, and continued to devote his life to his art.
Nearest Helped Bulid Jack Daniel’s
Eventually, Jack became a partner with Call before growing and buying the reverend out of his ownership stake. Jack quickly named Nearest Green as the master distiller for the new operation, a title never before bestowed upon a Black American. It was a badge that Green had earned many times over with his historic contribution to Tennessee whiskey. One that would define distillation in the state for generations.
They continued distilling on the Call farm until they outgrew the space. Jack decided to move to Lynchburg. There he established the historic distillery that is now a world-renowned tourist destination for fans of the original charcoal mellowed whiskey.
Uncle Nearest was older by the time the distillery was ready and had decided to retire. However, his sons and grandsons took up the mantle and kept his legacy alive. According to Jack Daniel’s records, there has never been a generation of distilling at the Lynchburg Distillery without a descendent of Nearest working somewhere on the grounds. Though, it’s only until recently that Green’s legacy has come to light.
His story, likely purposefully suppressed due to its controversial nature, has now come to be yet another story of how Black culture influenced American history. Nathan “Nearest” Green’s legacy and history are now properly part of the canon of American whiskey.
Greg Sinadinos started his spirits journey writing a whiskey periodical for Fine Tobacco NYC Magazine. He began answering review requests under a social media page he named “Whiskey Culture,” which quickly merged with Greg’s passion for connecting with others and his interest in history.
Today, Greg travels the country not just looking for great whiskey, but also exploring the history and individuals that the whiskey community is founded upon. He has authored “Whiskey History From Around The World” and is the host of “The Rickhouse” web series.