His name was Nearis Green, but everyone who knew him called him Uncle Nearis. There is a good chance you have never heard of him. But you have heard of his protege, Jasper Daniel — or, at least, the whiskey that bears his nickname, Jack.
Had a young Daniel not been taught by Green, a master distiller, Jack Daniel’s in all likelihood would not be the world’s best-selling whiskey. But Green was not a master distiller by choice — he was a slave, owned by Tennessee preacher and distiller Dan Call.
Green’s role is not a completely new revelation. In “Jack Daniel’s Legacy,” a biography written in 1967, a quote from Call described Nearis as the “best whiskey maker that I know of,” as the New York Times pointed out.
But it is a reality that the Jack Daniel’s company is only now starting to acknowledge. As the distillery turns 150 years old in 2016, the corporate account of how Daniel learned to create his whiskey is filling in certain gaps.
“It’s taken something like the anniversary for us to start to talk about ourselves,” said Nelson Eddy, the distillery’s company historian, to the Times.
If guides want to talk about Green during the popular Jack Daniel’s tour, that is within their discretion, the Times reported. And, for now, there is no acknowledgement of Nearis on the brief history recounted at Jack Daniel’s home page. Instead, it reads, “1850: Mr. Jack goes to work at Dan Call’s distillery, where he learns all phases of the whiskey business.” But the Times notes that Jack Daniel’s is starting to mention Green on social media and during its publicity campaigns. (Perhaps, some critics say, as part of a socially aware marketing move.)
Before the increased interest in Green, if his role was mentioned at all, it was brief. Daniel was celebrated for founding his own distillery, in 1866, at the mouth of a cave spring in Lynchburg, Tenn. — the master stroke that separated his whiskey from the stiff competition of the time. But before he found fame, Daniel was orphaned at age 15, according to the history “Dead Distillers,” recently published by the Brooklyn-based bourbon distillers Colin Spoelman and David Haskell. Homeless, Daniel was taken in by the Call family, who owned a small distillery. The man Call put in charge of the whiskey production was none other than Uncle Nearis.
It would not have been unusual for Call to rely on slave labor for his whiskey operation in antebellum Tennessee. American slavery and alcohol production had had a long history. In the Appalachian South, for instance, about one in every 77 slaves was involved with liquor production, either by constructing the facilities, crafting the barrels or operating the distillery equipment, according to Virginia Polytechnic Institute sociologist Wilma Dunaway in her textbook “Slavery in the American Mountain South.”
Three slaves worked at the average distillery, Dunaway wrote. And larger facilities had more. Sixty years before Daniel established his Lynchburg distillery, George Washington had his own operation in Virginia. Under Scottish foremen, six slaves forced to work at Mount Vernon enabled the distillery, by its 1799 heyday, to produce 11,000 gallons of whiskey a year.
The true extent of slaves’ role in producing whiskey may never be known. It is possible that even after the Civil War Green was still helping Daniel distill the liquor. Spoelman and Haskill say that, after the war ended, some former slaves chose to stay on at the Call distillery. And one of Green’s descendants, according to the Times, may be pictured in a photograph on Jack Daniel’s Facebook page, sitting at the right hand of the famous whiskey man.