RACHEL BELLE

Jack Daniel’s documentary reminds us Tennessee whiskey was created by an enslaved African American man

Jul 6, 2021, 11:24 AM | Updated: Jul 8, 2021, 10:55 am
Jack Daniel's...
Nathan "Nearest" Green's son, George, sits next to Jack Daniel, showing the deep relationship between the Green family and Daniel. It was practically unheard of for an African American to be photographed next to a white person.

A new documentary called Chasing Whiskey digs into the culture and history of one of America’s oldest brands: Jack Daniel’s whiskey.

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“A brand that’s survived 150 years, survived the Civil War, survived slavery, survived two World Wars, and prohibition, which ran longer in Tennessee than it did throughout the country,” said Nelson Eddy, Jack Daniel’s official historian, who is featured in the documentary.

Jack Daniel’s is exclusively made in Lynchburg, Tennessee, and shipped around the world to 170 countries. Lynchburg is a small town of about 6,000 people and, in the documentary, you get the feeling everyone is connected to the distillery.

“My brother works at Jack Daniel’s,” said a Lynchburg woman interviewed for the film. “My brother-in-law worked at Jack Daniel’s, my nephew works at Jack Daniel’s, my mother worked at Jack Daniel’s, my daughter, my husband, aunts and uncles.”

The documentary puts strong focus on the whiskey’s impact on global culture. The brand has never hired a spokesperson, but because Jack Daniel’s became a symbol of timeless masculinity, country music stars write it into their songs, Frank Sinatra was famously buried with a bottle, John Belushi’s character in Animal House chugs an entire bottle of it in a scene, and the signature square bottle with the black and white label was prominently featured in the 1963 film Hud to prove just how manly Paul Newman’s character was. But the most interesting thing about Jack Daniel’s whiskey is its history.

Nelson Eddy says Jack Daniel, the man, left home in the late 1850s.

“He’ll go and live with a Lutheran minister by the name of Dan Call,” Eddy said. “Dan has a still and the head distiller is an African American enslaved individual by the name of Nathan ‘Nearest’ Green. Jack gravitates toward the still as a young man and a relationship develops. To the point that when Jack buys the still from Dan Call, this is after the Civil War and Nearest has been emancipated, he will hire Nearest as his first master distiller. So the first master distiller of Jack Daniel’s whiskey was a former slave by the name of Nearest Green.”

People in Lynchburg have always known this story.

“There’s been a member of [the Green] family working at the Jack Daniel’s distillery all the way through, up until today,” Eddy said.

But it wasn’t until 2016 that Brown-Forman, the company that has owned Jack Daniel’s since the 1950s, incorporated the true history of how Jack Daniel learned how to distill into its factory tours and public facing literature.

“Nearest was older, he was Jack’s mentor, he taught him everything he knew about whiskey,” Eddy said. “He taught him the charcoal mellowing process [that became a signature of Tennessee distilling].”

Green was a father figure to Daniel, an orphan whose mother died after his birth, and his father during the Civil War. Brown-Forman made the story of Green and Daniel public after an African American woman named Fawn Weaver learned of the story, devoted herself to doing an incredible amount of research on the topic, and put pressure on the company to include its true history.

“If we did something wrong, I would say it’s that we didn’t realize how important the story was,” Eddy said.

“I want people to watch this film and never look at a bottle of booze the same,” said Chasing Whiskey‘s director Greg Olliver.

Chasing Whiskey is available now on streaming platforms, including on Amazon Video, Google Play, and YouTube.

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal.” Follow @yourlastmealpodcast on Instagram!

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Jack Daniel’s documentary reminds us Tennessee whiskey was created by an enslaved African American man