October 03 2019 – David Lemmond
When referring to cultural heritage, a basic description includes social etiquette, ethics, and crafts that are historically associated with cultural groups. The story of “Jack” Daniel and Nathan “Nearest” Green is rich in heritage as it pertains to the craft of Tennessee Whiskey, and an enduring friendship that impacted future generations.
The Friendship of Jack and Nearest
Nearest Green was an African-American slave who played a significant role in the life of Jack Daniel. As a youngster during the late-1850’s, Jack worked for a Lutheran minister named Dan Call. The reverend had a whiskey business, and this is where Jack learned to make whiskey. Nearest Green was the distiller who assisted in teaching Jack the skills needed for the craft. After the Civil War, the reverend sold his business to Jack; thus, Jack and Nearest (now free) began their journey in establishing one of the most iconic Tennessee Whiskey brands in America. Nearest is listed on the Jack Daniel’s website as the first Master Distiller of the company, making him the first African-American on record with such a title. And since that time, a member of the Green family has always been employed at the Jack Daniel’s Distillery. While it is understandable that different people will value different aspects of this story, my primary interest is in the friendship that occurred between Jack and Nearest during one of the most contentious racial eras in American History.
Jack Daniel (right) and George Green, Nearest's son (left)
According to Fawn Weaver, a historian of Green,
"The relationship between Jack Daniel and Nearest Green was a great one. Nearest Green was not Jack's slave. Jack did not have any slaves. Nearest Green was Jack's mentor. And Jack's descendants and Nearest's descendants, not only were they friends, they lived side by side. They worked side by side. There was not a distinguishment between the two. Even though you're talking about the late 1800s, early 1900s, so if you can picture that in your mind, you have blacks and whites living side by side in equality…putting that in context with what I have been uncovering over the last 10 months is pretty phenomenal …" (NPR).
Weaver appears to be inspired by the story, and provides some historical insight due to her extensive research.
This particular story has, understandably, produced quite a reaction since it recently gained national attention. However, the story of Nearest and Jack has always been familiar to those in Tennessee. It is unclear what Green’s role was in developing recipes/processes for Jack Daniel’s Whiskey; nevertheless, it is documented that he and Reverend Call instructed young Jack in the process of distilling. Therefore, at the very least, we know that Jack learned the basics on how to distill fine whiskey from Green and Call, and that he continued to work with Nearest for many years. I will end with this thought: Mentors are key figures in teaching a craft, and then original development begins to occur, which distinguishes the pupil from the mentor. In other words, ideas and improvements tend to grow from shared knowledge and creativity. It seems that the individual, Jack Daniel acknowledged his mentor both privately and publicly in the form of genuine friendship and occupational partnership.
Without a doubt, Jack Daniel’s is one of the most well-known whiskeys in America. It was created in the American South (Lynchburg, Tennessee) utilizing corn, barley, rye, and the natural resource of limestone spring water. As a process, it is single distilled in copper, maple charcoal mellowed, and aged/matured in charred barrels. Further, they create their own maple charcoal and hand craft white oak barrels in house. According to the Jack Daniel’s website, “Using only No. 1 quality grade corn gives the mash an inviting sweetness. An ample amount of rye rounds out the sweetness with robust notes of pepper and spice. And just enough malt brings it all together with a creamy smoothness” (JD). Finally, it was registered as a business in 1866, which made it the first registered distillery in the US. And in 1904, Jack Daniel’s was awarded its first gold medal at the World’s Fair in Missouri.
The Lincoln County Process
According to Whiskey Wash, the Lincoln County Process is a technique used to purify whiskey. Leaching the distilled spirit through sugar maple charcoal was a common practice in 19th century Tennessee (WW). And Jack Daniel’s still utilizes the process. It is referred to as charcoal mellowing, which is the step that differentiates Tennessee Whiskey from Bourbon. However, according to whiskey historian, Michael Veach, there are documented references to forerunner processes similar to this in the late 18th to early 19th centuries. One such reference is from Canada (MV). Thus, it is impossible to know whether charcoal mellowing was brought to America by one of the many groups who migrated here, developed by tweaking similar approaches, or an original approach discovered by Tennessean’s. Nevertheless, according to Jack Daniel's historian, Nelson Eddy,
"Everyone in these hills was making it the same way…" (NPR).
Out of curiosity, I researched the history of utilizing charcoal for purification purposes and found the following:
"By 400 BC, the Phoenicians were storing water in charred barrels on trading ships to improve its taste. It seems they had hit upon one of charcoal’s most important properties, the ability to bind substances to its surface, a phenomenon known as “adsorption.” That application lay more or less dormant until the late 18th century, when Europeans developed a taste for sugar. Raw sugar from sugar cane or sugar beets is tainted by coloured impurities that can be removed by passing sugar extract through beds of charcoal." (Mcgill)
My second resource pertains specifically to alcohol. According to Angel’s Envy,
"The practice [of charring barrels] has been traced back as far as the fifteenth century, when cognac distillers in France would store their spirits in charred barrels."
Further, it seems that some of the basic methods for improving the taste of liquids has widespread and ancient roots. However, types of wood used to make charcoal, and the exact method used to filter, differs among whiskey crafters. In addition, aging/maturing times in charred barrels varies. Jack Daniel’s is unique when it comes to this process, as the whiskey is not aged for a specific amount of time; rather, it is considered matured based on the taste.
Uncle Nearest - A New Whiskey Brand
While the story of Nearest Green is tightly bound to the Jack Daniel's brand, we thought it appropriate to showcase the work of the up and coming whiskey brand, Uncle Nearest, as well. Actor Jeffrey Wright does an excellent job telling the story of Nearest, slowly drawing out the story and finally tying the beloved Jack Daniel's brand to that of Uncle Nearest.
Jack Daniel’s Whiskey is an American icon. And after learning of its origins and the character of the man himself, it also appears to have an honorable heritage. If Jack is your brand, we have it available at Rustic & Main. The whiskey barrel rings are quite popular, and Jack is one of our best-selling woods.
This article was written by Rustic and Main Ring Craftsman, David Lemmond. David is former counselor turned expert ring maker. He has a love for history, particularly genealogy, and philosophy, and makes some of the best BBQ sauce on the planet.