On its 150th anniversary, the Tennessee whiskey distillery concedes that its official history didn’t tell the whole story of its origins.
LYNCHBURG, Tenn. — Every year, about 275,000 people tour the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, and as they stroll through its brick buildings nestled in a tree-shaded hollow, they hear a story like this: In the 1850s, when Daniel was a boy, he went to work for a preacher, grocer and distiller named Dan Call. The preacher was a busy man, and when he saw promise in young Jack, he taught him how to run his whiskey still — and the rest is history.
This year is the 150th anniversary of Jack Daniel’s, and the distillery, home to one of the world’s best-selling whiskeys, is using the occasion to tell a different, more complicated tale. Daniel, the company now says, didn’t learn distilling from Dan Call, but from a man named Nearis Green, one of Call’s slaves.
This version of the story was never a secret, but it is one the distillery has only recently begun to embrace, tentatively, in some of its tours, and in a social-media and marketing campaign this summer.
“It’s taken something like the anniversary for us to start to talk about ourselves,” said Nelson Eddy, Jack Daniel’s in-house historian.
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Frontier history is a gauzy and unreliable pursuit, and Nearis Green’s story — built on oral history and the thinnest of archival trails — may never be definitively proved. Still, the decision to tell it resonates far beyond this small city.
For years, the prevailing history of American whiskey has been framed as a lily-white affair, centered on German and Scots-Irish settlers who distilled their surplus grains into whiskey and sent it to far-off markets, eventually creating a $2.9 billion industry and a product equally beloved by Kentucky colonels and Brooklyn hipsters.
Left out of that account were men like Nearis Green. Slavery and whiskey, far from being two separate strands of Southern history, were inextricably entwined. Enslaved men not only made up the bulk of the distilling labor force, but they often played crucial skilled roles in the whiskey-making process. In the same way that white cookbook authors often appropriated recipes from their black cooks, white distillery owners took credit for the whiskey.
In deciding to talk about Green, Jack Daniel’s may be hoping to get ahead of a collision between the growing popularity of American whiskey among younger drinkers and a heightened awareness of the hidden racial politics behind America’s culinary heritage.
Some also see the move as a savvy marketing tactic. “When you look at the history of Jack Daniel’s, it’s gotten glossier over the years,” said Peter Krass, author of “Blood and Whiskey: The Life and Times of Jack Daniel.”
“In the 1980s, they aimed at yuppies. I could see them taking it to the next level, to millennials, who dig social-justice issues.”
Jack Daniel’s says it simply wants to set the record straight. The Green story has been known to historians and locals for decades, even as the distillery officially ignored it.
According to a 1967 biography, “Jack Daniel’s Legacy,” by Ben A. Green (no relation to Nearis), Call told his slave to teach Daniel everything he knew. “Uncle Nearest is the best whiskey maker that I know of,” the book quotes Call as saying.
Slavery ended with ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, and Daniel opened his distillery a year later, employing two of Green’s sons. In a photo of Daniel and his workers taken in the late 19th century, a black man, possibly one of Green’s sons, sits at his immediate right — a sharp contrast to contemporaneous photos from other distilleries, where black employees were made to stand in the back rows.
But corporate history-keeping was a rare practice in those days, and over time memories of Green and his sons faded.
“I don’t think it was ever a conscious decision” to leave the Greens out of the company’s story, said Phil Epps, the global brand director for Jack Daniel’s at Brown-Forman, which has owned the distillery for 60 years. Still, it is unlikely anyone in the Jim Crow South thought a whiskey marketed to whites should emphasize its black roots.
As the brand’s anniversary approached, the company started researching its various origin stories. It decided the case for Nearis Green’s contribution was persuasive, and should be told. “As we dug into it, we realized it was something that we could be proud of,” Epps said.
A business built on slave help may not seem like a selling point, which may explain why Jack Daniel’s is taking things slowly. The Green story is an optional part of the distillery tour, left to the tour guide’s discretion, and the company is considering whether it will flesh out the story in new displays at its visitors center.
However far the distillery decides to go, it is placing itself at the center of a larger issue that distillers and whiskey historians have begun to deal with only in the past few years: the deep ties between slavery and whiskey.
An exhibit on George Washington and slavery opening this fall at the first president’s Northern Virginia home, Mount Vernon, documents how he relied on six slaves (and two Scottish foremen) to run his rye whiskey distillery, one of the largest on the East Coast.
“They were key to the operation in making whiskey,” said Steve Bashore, who helps run a working replica of Washington’s distillery. “In the ledgers, the slaves are actually listed as distillers.”
A faint echo
Slavery accompanied distilling as it moved inland in the late 18th century, to the newly settled regions that would become Tennessee and Kentucky. Though slave owning was not as common there as it was farther south, by the 1800s many successful farmers had at least a few slaves, who tended to be closely involved with whiskey production.
Some of the earliest prominent Kentucky distillers, like Elijah Craig, Henry McKenna and Jacob Spears, relied on slaves to run their operations. (Craig and McKenna’s names are now on whiskeys made by Heaven Hill Brands, but those were created long after slavery was abolished.)
Washington wasn’t the only president to use slaves in his distillery. In an 1805 advertisement, Andrew Jackson offered a bounty for a runaway slave named George, whom he identified as “a good distiller.”
Databases of ads for slave sales and for runaway slaves are full of references to slaves as skilled whiskey distillers.
Slaves did more than provide physical labor. If Green taught Daniel to distill, said Michael Twitty, a food historian, he probably would have drawn on generations of liquor-making skills: American slaves had their own traditions of alcohol production, going back to the corn beer and fruit spirits of West Africa, and many Africans made alcohol illicitly while in slavery.
Mike Veach, a whiskey historian, said the influence of enslaved African distillers may explain a mystery in the development of American whiskey. Traces of German, Scots-Irish and English distilling traditions are evident in the American style, but there’s much that can’t be traced to an earlier source, a gap that slave traditions might fill.
“I don’t know what role slaves would have played,” Veach said, “but I’m sure it was there.”
Despite the recent attention from Jack Daniel’s, Nearis Green’s name is just a faint echo, even among several of his descendants who live in the area. Claude Eady, 91, who worked for the distillery from 1946 to 1989, said he was related to Green “on my mother’s side,” but didn’t know much about him.
“I heard his name around,” he said. “The only thing I knew was that he helped Jack Daniel make whiskey.”