Record-breaking sales for Uncle Nearest whiskey, named for a slave who mentored Jack Daniel
Launching a whiskey brand was the last thing on Fawn Weaver's mind as she scoured records in the Moore County Library for any mention of a man called Nathan "Nearest" Green — the former slave who taught young Jack Daniel how to make whiskey.
Weaver came across a New York Times article about Green and the formation of the Jack Daniel Distillery several years ago. The author was instantly captivated by Daniel and Green's relationship. She had to know more.
So she and her husband traveled from Los Angeles to Lynchburg, Tennessee, with a mission: get to the bottom of the story, and make Nearest Green a household name.
"That's the story I was chasing," she said. "Whiskey wasn't a part of it."
Four years later, Weaver's award-winning American whiskey brand, Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, is the best-selling African-American owned and founded spirit brand in history, the company announced Tuesday.
Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey has sold nearly 1.5 million bottles of Tennessee whiskey bearing Green's nickname and netted more than 160 awards since its birth in 2017. Its bottles are available in more than 21,000 bars, restaurants and stores in all 50 states and 12 countries.
In 2020, the company saw its ninth quarter in a row of triple-digit growth, and its gross revenue increased 94%. Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey is on track to sell 250,000 cases of whiskey in 2021.
"The spirits industry has never seen anything like this in all the years data has been tracked through Nielsen, the International Wine and Spirits Record, or the Information Resources Inc., the three major data collection agencies for the (spirits) industry," said Don Bichsel, founder of spirits data collection and analysis company 3 Tier Beverages.
"No African-American founded and led spirit brand has ever come close to what the Uncle Nearest brand and team have done," Bichsel stated in a news release. "We analyzed every piece of credible data and Uncle Nearest is undoubtedly the top seller of all time, with the rest of the top 10 being so far behind that they barely registered on Nielsen's."
The whiskey company that almost wasn't
At first, Weaver found only the broad strokes of Green's story: While he was a slave on Rev. Dan Call's farm about five miles outside of Lynchburg, Green mentored Daniel. After the Civil War, Daniel bought the distillery. Daniel hired Green, now a free man, to be the Jack Daniel Distillery's first head distiller. (Jack Daniel Distillery amended its history to recognize Green as its first master distiller in 2017.)
Weaver and her husband weren't having much luck finding information at Moore County Library when an older white woman walked in. She wore a suit and scarf — a striking departure from the rest of the town's preferred garb for duck hunting season.
She introduced herself as Judy Boyd Terjen, now the oldest living relative of Jack Daniel himself. After explaining her interest in Green, Weaver assured Boyd Terjen she was not out to tarnish the Daniel family's legacy. She wanted to bring the full story to light.
Boyd Terjen took out her cell phone and started listing the names and numbers of Green's descendants, many of whom still lived and worked in Lynchburg. Before she left, Boyd Terjen mentioned Call's farm, the original Distillery No. 7, was up for sale. She grabbed a sticky note from the library desk and drew Weaver a map.
Soon after, Weaver received a phone call from Boyd Terjen's cousin Sherrie Moore, another Jack Daniel descendant and a 33-year veteran of the Tennessee whiskey industry. Moore, a realtor, took Weaver and her husband to the historic 313-acre farm.
As soon as Weaver stepped foot on the property, she said she felt an overwhelming sense of peace.
"It took my husband and I two seconds to know we wanted this piece of American history," she said. "So then, we bought the farm ... that's what flipped our world upside down."
Weaver moved to Lynchburg, using the farmhouse as a center to research a book and movie about Green's life. Moore dropped by often to see her progress. One day, she offered to help Weaver take her mission a step further.
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"She said, 'I know that you're doing a book and a movie, but if you ever decide to honor Nearest with a bottle, I'll come out of retirement to make sure you get it right,'" Weaver said. "That's when I learned who Sherrie was. I had no idea before that."
Weaver soon realized the path she needed to take to make Nearest Green a household name.
"It became clear to me that the only reason we still know who Jack Daniel is, who Johnny Walker is, who Jim Beam is, all of these people — it's because every time we go into a store we're looking at them on the shelves," Weaver said. "If we were going to cement Nearest Green's legacy, it could not be through a movie, it could not be through a book. It had to be through whiskey."
And it had to be good whiskey. A brand like Jack Daniel's that would last more than 150 years.
Breaking new ground
Weaver started the company with a three-woman executive team: herself, Moore as head of whiskey operations and Katharine Jerkens as head of sales.
Weaver and Jerkens were entirely new to the spirits industry. The trio soon discovered their calls to whiskey sources, bottle partners and suppliers were being ignored.
"The first hurdle was the fact that we were women coming into an industry that was not yet accustomed to strong women," Weaver said. "And I'm not lacking for confidence, and for Black women in this industry ... they've not seen a whole lot of that. So then you have this sort of (attitude of) ... 'Who the hell does she think she is?'"
Weaver gave a list of contacts to her husband, who immediately received calls back. The experience didn't slow them down, she said.
They received a barrage of advice on who to market to: Black people, since the company was founded by Weaver, a Black woman. White men. Men in general. They spent the first year and a half criss-crossing the country, sometimes holding multiple sales meetings in different cities and states in one day.
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"We had to work like four or five times as hard as someone else out in the field, because we were already starting out with the disadvantage of people not believing we could pull this off," Weaver said.
But they did.
Weaver now lives in Shelbyville close to the Uncle Nearest distillery. The Jack Daniel Distillery is just a few miles down the road.
The news of the company's record-breaking success is welcome to Victoria Eady Butler, the brand's master blender and a fifth-generation descendant of Nathan "Nearest" Green himself.
"I couldn't be more excited that this announcement is coming on the heels of International Women's Day, given that we are the only major spirit brand with an all-female executive team," Eady Butler wrote in a statement. "Reaching this achievement at this moment in time is important as it reminds folks that whiskey, like music, is the great equalizer."
For Weaver, the brand is a testament to a remarkable history of a "white orphan boy and an African American elder who worked side by side and treated each other with mutual respect." Now, the descendants of both Daniel and Green are working together to make whiskey once again.
"I think the fact that it came out of a town called Lynchburg, Tennessee, and that's where their roots are, I think it's something that this state can be extraordinarily proud of. This brand is home grown," Weaver said.
Cassandra Stephenson covers business at The Tennessean, part of the USA Today Network — Tennessee. Reach Cassandra at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (731) 694-7261. Follow Cassandra on Twitter at @CStephenson731.