Before the Civil War, enslaved persons plucked and shucked grains, milled them and helped distill whiskey across the United States of America. They lived and worked at almost every major distillery, from Bourbon County’s first distiller Jacob Spears’ distillery in Paris, Kentucky, to George Washington’s Mount Vernon distillery.
These men, women and sometimes children were listed as property in the official accounting records, but their contributions were never fully known.
I began to understand the role enslaved persons in American whiskey when researching my book, Whiskey Women: They were listed next to stills and fermenters in property books, almost cast aside like a lamp or fence post. For example, one of America’s first sour mash fermentation records sits in the Kentucky Historical Society with the recipe holder’s enslaved person records that include boy named “Little Bob.” I will never forget the chill that when down my spine when I wondered of this poor boy’s fate. I wanted to learn more, but I had few resources to track down this child’s life. I’ve found it unsettling that enslaved person distiller records were sparse and with little to know researcher evidence collected on them when they were freed in the mid-1800s. That’s changed.
With the creation of Uncle Nearest, the whiskey industry has been forced to recognize its role in the perilous years of American slavery.
Uncle Nearest honors Nearest Green, the former enslaved man who taught the Jack Daniel how to distill and is the most important new company attempting to tackle our country’s greatest social injustice—slavery. (Brown-Forman’s Jack Daniel Distillery also has an exhibit honoring Green.)
Uncle Nearest is one of the fastest growing American whiskeys in the country and has carved out niches in the United Kingdom, airports and with the bartender community. Weaver, a brilliant speaker, has also packed houses, telling Green’s story and lighting a fire in the spirits community to improve diversity in the workplace.