The old adage goes: “Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan.” So it goes with speculation on who taught Jack Daniels to make his famous Tennessee whiskey. In past posts I have profiled two individuals that others have contended gave Daniels the secret of distilling. Neither story is convincing. Now comes Nearest Green, a former black slave, whose claim on being Daniel’s whiskey mentor seems to have the greatest validity, to the point of being recognized by the current distiller.
In April 2014 I profiled Hop Lee. According to a narrative in the Granville, Tennessee, local museum, Hop Lee, shown here as a mannequin in a display, taught Jack Daniels how to make whiskey. Lee’s having been part of the Jack Daniels operation almost certainly is apocryphal, however, since that distillery incorporated at Lynchburg, Tennessee, in 1866. At that time Hop still would have been a youngster. Later Lee became thoroughly familiar with distilling and it is possible he was hired for a time at Jack Daniels distillery — but no real evidence.
The second claimant is a Pennsylvania woman named Mary Stout Jacocks. Her method for making whiskey was a prize procession of distiller Billy Pearson, illustrated here. Billy was the ex-husband of Mary’s granddaughter. Ostracized from South Carolina, Pearson, so the story goes, went to Tennessee with Mrs. Jacocks’ recipe were he is reputed to have sold it to Jack Daniel. Pressed by Pearson’s descendants on the issue, a Daniels’ spokesman in 2003 issued this ambiguous reply: “’Mrs. Mary Stout [Jacocks] of Bucks County, PA, deserves to be warmly remembered for her early distilling skills back in the mid-1700s.”
Both claims fade when the subject turns to Nathan Green, known as “Uncle Nearest.” Beginning life as a slave of a minister, grocer and distiller named Dan Call, Green got short shrift from the Daniels distillery for many years. Preacher Call himself frequently has been given credit for Daniels’ whiskey. Shown here with his family in front of his Lynchburg plantation house, Call was said to have seen promise in young Jack and taught him the whiskey trade.
More recently that story has been seriously challenged. In June 2016, The New York Times published an article identifying Daniel’s instructor as Green. The Times asserted that Uncle Nearest’s story had been known to historians and locals for decades, even as the distillery officially ignored it. In lieu of any known photograph of Green, his proponents have commissioned an artist to paint a likeness, shown here.
A 1967 newspaper article reputedly recreates a conversation when Call introduced the young Daniels to the slave, the preacher’s master distiller. Call is quoted saying to Green, "I want [Jack] to become the world's best whiskey distiller — if he wants to be. You help me teach him.” Nearest apparently was enthusiastic about the assignment. He is known to have loved children, siring eleven of his own with wife Harriet, nine sons and two daughters. When slavery ended at the end of the Civil War in 1865, the Green family stayed with Call.
A year later the now mature Jack Daniels opened his own distillery, employing two of Green’s son, George and Eli. Speculation is that they are the two black men shown here, sitting in a gathering of the distillery workforce. Immediately next to one of the brothers is Daniels wearing a white fedora and beard. Yet another of Nearest’s sons, Edde, also was employed by Daniels.
At least four of Nearest's grandchildren joined the Jack Daniel Distillery: Ott, Charlie, Otis and Jesse Green. In all, seven generations of Nearest Green descendants have worked for the distillery , with three direct descendants continuing to work there in contemporary times. As shown below, the larger distillery staff was an integrated group.
The success of Jack Daniels’ Tennessee whiskey was notable. As the company letterhead shown here indicates, it was awarded gold medals for excellence at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, the World’ Fair in Liege, Belgium in 1905 and the Ghent International Exposition in 1913. The brand’s cache’ with contemporary Americans has been signified by a recent auction of an early Daniels whiskey jug. Shown here, it fetched in excess of $1,000.
The whiskey that Daniel’s originated now stretches toward a century and a half of success, a remarkable tradition. As one author has written: “However, Green’s story — built on oral history and the thinnest of archival trails — may never be definitively proved.” Nevertheless, Author Fawn Weaver has founded and helps finance the Nearest Green Foundation to commemorate the former slave at Lynchburg. Green is celebrated with a museum, memorial park, and with college scholarships for his descendants. The Foundation is funded by the sales of “Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey,” not made by Daniels, and the sales of Jack Daniel's official biography entitled, Jack Daniel's Legacy.
Since August 2017, the Brown-Forman Corporation that owns the Jack Daniel's Distillery and brand name officially recognized Green as their first head distiller, adding his story to their website. In October 2017, the company also added a narrative about Nearest Green’s contribution to their distillery tours. Nevertheless, It remains to be seen if these steps end speculation about who taught Jack Daniels to make whiskey.