[Fox News] Meet the American who taught Jack Daniel to make whiskey: Nearest Green, Tennessee slave and master distiller

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Nathan Nearest Green rose from the inhumanity of slavery to lift American spirits around the world. 

Green lived in bondage in the years before the Civil War. He operated a farmhouse distillery for minister slave owner and grocery-store operator Dan Call in Lynchburg, Tennessee

It was there that the middle-aged African American distiller taught a poor, hardworking and curious pre-teen Scots-Irish boy named Jack Daniel how to make whiskey on a barnyard still in backwoods America. 

That boy opened Jack Daniel’s Distillery in 1866. He hired Green, newly emancipated a year earlier, as its first master distiller. 

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“We think there was a special bond between Jack and Nearest and Jack and Nearest’s family,” Jack Daniel’s historian Nelson Eddy told Fox News Digital. 

Green’s descendants have worked at the distillery since its inception — they still help produce the whiskey today, more than 150 years later, he said. 

Jack Daniel’s Tennessee sour-mash whiskey is the top-selling whiskey and most globally recognized spirit made in the United States

The Jack Daniel’s brand is so deeply and uniquely American it should have its own marching band, fight song and football team

Yet the signature processes behind Jack Daniel’s, and Tennessee whiskey in general, include techniques, some experts argue, known in western Africa — where conquered tribesman, Green’s ancestors, were sold into slavery to Europeans and shipped around the world.

Yes. Jack Daniel’s, like most everything profoundly American, boasts international influences.

Green’s story has long been known to spirits historians and shared by the Jack Daniel’s Distillery. 

“It’s a story of Black and White working together — you can boil it down to something really that simple and really human,” Charles K. Cowdery, author of the book “Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey,” told Fox News Digital.

But Green’s influence is gaining wider audience now, thanks in large part to Nearest Green Distillery in Shelbyville, Tennessee, which has earned critical acclaim for its products and praise for its devotion to whiskey history since opening in 2017.

“Nearest Green is definitely the godfather of Tennessee whiskey,” Fran Weaver, founder of Nearest Green Distillery, said in a 2019 interview with FOX Business.

Nathan Nearest Green was born around 1820 in Maryland, most likely in Baltimore. Little is known about his early life. 

A more complete picture emerges in later years, as Green enjoyed emancipation in the wake of the Civil War.

“His friends and family called him Uncle Nearest,” according to research by Nearest Green Distillery. 

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“’Uncle’ is a term that was used in Lynchburg as an indication of respect, for both Whites and Blacks at the time. Nearest was greatly respected in Lynchburg as a mentor and the best whiskey maker in the area.”

He appears to have enjoyed a full life in freedom. 

The 1880 census lists Green — written down as “Nearis” Green, most likely a misspelling — as 60 years old. It shows him married to Harriet, just 40, and with a full brood of nine children. 

Several of his children worked at Jack Daniel’s Distillery in its earliest days. 

He arrived at Dan Call’s Lynchburg farm sometime in the mid-1800s. Among other duties, he was charged with operating the farmhouse distillery. 

“It was a natural job for enslaved labor,” said Cowdery, referencing that period of time in America’s history. “It’s dirty and it’s hard and it’s dangerous.”

Soon, Green would mentor a poor little boy in a relationship that would change the destinies of two families and shape the future of American spirits. 

Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel was born into freedom. But not ease.

The details of his early life are also unknown. He was born in Lynchburg around 1848, the youngest of 10 children.

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Daniel’s mother died soon after he was born, no more than a few months later.

He was about 10 years old when he went to work for Minister Call; and he was around 15 when his father, serving in the Confederate army, died of pneumonia in 1863. 

Jack Daniel was a teenage orphan. 

“He worked as a chore boy for the preacher ─ milking cows, feeding slop to the pigs, getting water from the springhouse and all the other things farm hands do,” according to NearestGreen.com. 

The allure of the distillery captured his curiosity. He began working with Green, reportedly with the blessing of landowner Call.

The poor White orphan boy and the enslaved middle-aged Black distiller proved a dynamic duo, by all accounts.

“He wasn’t a privileged boy. He was a worker, like Nearest,” reports NearestGreen.com. 

Green gave Daniel a master class on the intricacies of a spirit made only in America: sour-mash, charred-oak barrel-aged, charcoal-filtered corn whiskey.

Tennessee whiskey, in other words. 

It’s so easy drinking its inspired legend, lyric and lover’s lament. 

The processes that make it so smooth were all known by the 19th century and in many cases improved and perfected by enslaved distillers. 

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Corn-based, sour-mash whiskey, aged on charred oak barrels, is common in most American whiskeys.

Tennessee whiskey is unique largely by one process: charcoal filtering. The distilled liquor is filtered through sugar-maple charcoal before it’s aged.

“It s believed by many whiskey and food historians to have been brought in by slaves, who were already using charcoal to filter their water and purify their foods in West Africa,” reports NearestGreen.com.

Both Cowdery, the whiskey author, and Eddy, the company historian, dispute the African origins. 

Regardless, Tennessee whiskey requires intricate science and craftsmanship on a level remarkable in the 1800s for what was essentially backwoods moonshining. 

Jack Daniel, the spirit namesake, appears to have learned it all from Nearest Green, according to distillery historian Eddy. 

The two men developed a relationship deeper than just co-workers. 

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“I would consider Nearest a mentor for Jack,” said Eddy. “I will tell you this, there was something more going on here. He was heavily influenced by Nearest in many ways.”

Green, known to play fiddle, reportedly fueled Daniel’s lifelong passion for music.

Nathan Nearest Green died around 1890. His final resting place is unknown. No known picture of him exists. 

But his impact is still felt around the world.

Jack Daniel’s charcoal-mellowed sour-mash Tennessee whiskey is a prized symbol of excellence in American spirit-craft around the world. 

Green’s impact is most notably felt in Lynchburg. His family went on to become one of the biggest landowners in the region, according to Eddy. 

Two of his descendants, Jerome Vance and Jackie Hardin, still work at the distillery today. 

Another, Debbie Staples, recently retired.

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“There has never been drop of Jack Daniel’s made without a member of the Green family working somewhere in the company,” said whiskey historian Cowdery. 

Jack Daniel’s today is owned by international wine and spirits conglomerate Brown-Forman. It manages a vast complex of global trade, distribution and marketing logistics.

“It really is a huge company,” said Cowdery. “But at the distillery in Lynchburg, it really is local people working there for years. It has a very familial feel.”

The relationship between Green and Daniel that made Tennessee whiskey an icon appears forged by a shared human bond: the struggles of orphan and slave. 

“This story is bigger than whiskey,” said Eddy. 

“It’s the story of the relationship between two men, the distillery and two families.”

To read more stories in this unique “Meet the American Who…” series from Fox News Digital, click here

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