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Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey honors first African American Master Distiller’s legacy

Malia Lazu
Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey honors first African American Master Distiller’s legacy
Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey CEO Fawn Weaver (left) and Master Blender and great-great-granddaughter of Nearest Green, Victoria Eady Butler. PHOTO: UNCLE NEAREST INC.

Banner Business sponsored by The Boston Foundation

 

One of the most awarded American whiskey brands was built on a filtration process brought to the United States by enslaved people and practiced by the hands of first-known Black master distiller Nathan “Nearest” Green.

Born in Maryland in the 1820s, Nearest Green’s whiskey boasted a unique smoothness only achieved by filtering bourbon through sugar maple coal. Once enslaved by the very preacher who claimed to have taught a young Jack Daniel how to make whiskey, when it was in fact Green himself doing so in the 1850s, his story now lives on through Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey.

This all-women led and 50% women-employed business has flourished into the United States’ most awarded and fastest growing whiskey brand according to the IWSR. Founded by CEO Fawn Weaver in 2017 with the expertise and skill of four time Master Blender of the year and great-great-granddaughter of Nearest Green, Victoria Eady Butler, Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey aims to eliminate barriers for minorities within the spirits industry by using their success to uplift others. When reading Green’s story for the first time in a 2016 New York Times article titled “Jack Daniel’s Embraces a Secret Ingredient: Help from a Slave, ”Weaver had no idea that moment would lead to the development of a multimillion dollar network of minority-owned spirit businesses.

In an effort to map out the true brand story told by the life of the master distiller from Distillery No. 7, prior to their launch in 2017, Weaver enlisted the help of countless professionals to gather thousands of historical documents and artifacts from the property in Lynchburg, Tennessee where both Nearest Green and Jack Daniel resided. With her newfound understanding of how their brand came to be, Weaver reached out to 100 of Green and Daniel’s descendents with the intention of finding out how they felt his legacy should be honored, and the answer was clear: whiskey.

As a new path within the spirits industry forged its way ahead of them, Weaver and Eady Butler got to work right away. With 50 million dollars, Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey was able to open the doors to their first 270 acre distillery in Shelbyville, Tennessee with phase one completed in 2019 and phase three in 2021. Now, 8 years after learning about Green’s story, Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey’s development is being monitored by bankers and investors nationwide who are on the lookout for the next of its kind.

Reflecting on their success in an article for Martha Stewart, Weaver emphasizes integral concepts within their company’s journey: “diversity, equity and inclusion aren’t buzz words for us… it’s how our company and brands were built, and it remains a core part of our ethos.” Uncle Nearest  Premium Whiskey provides us with a perfect example of what investing in minorities and people of color looks like in action. While minorities make up roughly 70% of the United States population, there are clear disparities when comparing what demographics fund and own brands in this country. Of the small fraction of North American businesses that are founded and are owned by women and people of color, an even smaller portion of them are able to secure sufficient necessary to attain financial success. According to Weaver, prior to Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, there had never been a successful spirits company led by a person of color. By breaking this barrier within the industry, the Uncle Nearest brand aims to uplift underrepresented communities and lead by example in showing the power and potential of investing in minority-owned businesses.

When interviewed in 2023, Weaver commented on her brand’s commitment to investing in minority founded, owned and led companies, stating: “When you are an African American woman who has figured out a pathway to success within an industry that has historically been reserved for white males, it becomes your responsibility to turn around and pull as you climb.” This mentality has proven successful as the company’s various efforts to forge paths for minority-owned spirit businesses have resulted in the expansion and development of several of their backed spirit brands.

Started in 2021 on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre in which the nation saw white mobs destroy the bustling district known as Black Wall Street, the Uncle Nearest Venture Fund is representative of the brand’s ongoing commitment to rebuilding minority wealth, participation and success within the industry. This recently launched $50 million venture capital fund focuses on spirit brands founded and owned by people of color, successfully uplifting various minority-owned spirit companies such as Hella Cocktail Company, Equiano Rum, Freeland Spirits and Sorel Liqueur, who have expanded to 20 different states within one year. Shortly after, Uncle Nearest and Jack Daniel’s each contributed $5 million to launch the Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative which would provide participants access to a distilling certification program, mentorship services and a business incubation program.

Not only do these initiatives directly address and combat the challenges minority business owners face within the spirit industry in the United States, but they also set into motion everlasting change by investing in the future of their venture-backed brands. Fawn Weaver has created a collaborative culture by investing in minority entrepreneurs within the industry before selling even one bottle of whiskey, making sure to pull as they climb every step of the way.

Black master distiller, Black-owned distillery, Nearest Green, Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey