By: CLAY RISEN nytimes.com

Credit Nathan Morgan for The New York Times

Lynchburg, TN – Fawn Weaver was on vacation in Singapore last summer when she first read about Nearest Green, the Tennessee slave who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey.

Green’s existence had long been an open secret, but in 2016 Brown-Forman, the company that owns the Jack Daniel Distillery here, made international headlines with its decision to finally embrace Green’s legacy and significantly change its tours to emphasize his role….

But when she got to Lynchburg, she found no trace of Green. “I went on three tours of the distillery, and nothing, not a mention of him,” she said….

Ms. Weaver dug in, determined to uncover more about Green and persuade Brown-Forman to follow through on its promise to recognize his role in creating America’s most famous whiskey….

Scouring archives in Tennessee, Georgia and Washington, D.C., she created a timeline of Green’s relationship with Daniel, showing how Green had not only taught the whiskey baron how to distill, but had also gone to work for him after the Civil War,…. the first black master distiller in America.

An original jug stencil from about 1879. Credit Nathan Morgan for The New York Times

By her count, she has collected 10,000 documents and artifacts related to Daniel and Green, much of which she has agreed to donate to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington….

Brown-Forman officially recognized Green as its first master distiller, nearly a year after the company vowed to start sharing Green’s legacy…. (Daniel is now listed as its second master distiller.)

“It’s absolutely critical that the story of Nearest gets added to the Jack Daniel story,” Mark I. McCallum, the president of Jack Daniel’s Brands at Brown-Forman, said in an interview….

…the tale of American whiskey is still told as a whites-only affair, about Scots-Irish settlers who brought Old World distilling knowledge to the frontier states of Tennessee and Kentucky.

Green’s story changes all that by showing how enslaved people likely provided the brains as well as the brawn in what was an arduous, dangerous and highly technical operation….

Green was rented out by his owners, a firm called Landis & Green, to farmers around Lynchburg….

In a photo in Jack Daniel’s old office, Jack Daniel, with mustache and white hat, is shown at his distillery in Tennessee in the late 1800s. The man to his right could be Nearest Green, a slave who helped teach Jack Daniel how to make whiskey, or one of Green’s sons.

Green, already adept at distilling, took Daniel under his wing and, after the Civil War and the end of slavery, went to work for him in his fledgling whiskey operation….

In fact, Daniel never owned slaves and spoke openly about Green’s role as his mentor….

With a sampling of her estimated 10,000 documents and artifacts spread across a table between them, it quickly became obvious that Ms. Weaver, who had no previous background in whiskey history, knew more about the origins of Jack Daniel’s than the company itself. What was supposed to be a preliminary meeting turned into a six-hour conversation.

Mr. McCallum says he left reinvigorated, and within a few weeks he had plans in place to put Green at the center of the Jack Daniel’s story line….

Debbie Ann Eady-Staples, a great-great-granddaughter of Nearest Green, works on the bottling crew at the Jack Daniel’s distillery.

Ms. Eady-Staples, who met privately with Mr. McCallum before the big meeting, said she was proud that her employer was finally doing the right thing. “I don’t blame Brown-Forman for not acting earlier, because they didn’t know,” she said….

 

 

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