Nathan “Nearest” Green:
The Greatest Whiskey Maker the World Never Knew
(I first posted this 18 months ago and it has become the most shared post in this website for the past year. It deserves, if anything I ever wrote does, to be said again. The last part is really just a somewhat civilized rant but, as I reread it, the heat and anger rolling off of it certainly registers with me. If it gets past you, well, that’s what I tried to do.)
THIS is a story of our ancestors rising above their prejudices and presumptions for a good cause: naked self-interest.
As a former resident of Tennessee, I can tell you with a dead-certainty that it can, even today, be a fairly unfriendly place. Not all the time and certainly not all of Tennessee. If a Tennessean likes you, you’ll never have a better, more loyal, more generous friend. But they’re also people who, if they perceive a slight grievous enough, are quite willing to shoot you. President Andrew Jackson, arguably Knoxville’s most famous son, challenged over one hundred men to duels and shot quite a few of ’em. As recently as the 1940s, two attorneys shot it out on Gay Street, K’ville’s main N-S drag. And the hills of Tennessee are, even today, crawlin’ with moonshine stills, just as they were by early settlers who didn’t like being told by questionable strangers in Washington, DC, that they needed anybody’s permission to make their own whiskey, on their own land.
And, needless to say, African-Americans in East Tennessee were firmly held down and stifled by the intolerance of the day, back in the mid-1800s. This was neither a place or a time in which a black man could realistically aspire to make any sort of name for himself or even provide for his family.
And Nathan Green knew all that…he just didn’t care.
Nathan “Nearis” Green, was a former slave who lived in the woods of Lynchburg, Tennessee, adjacent to the farm of a Lutheran minister, Reverend Dan Call. Rev. Call, like many Southern pastors, saw no contradiction in being a man of The Cloth and taking the occasional (or even daily) dram of whiskey. As an old Baptist minister once told me, at a theater picnic in early-1990s Knoxville, “Y’know, I’ve read my Bible pretty regularly, for well over forty years, and I’ll be dipped if I can find a single word that tells a person not to take a drink of whiskey, now and again.”
Young Nathan, from an early age, in his native Maryland, found a real affinity for the whole subject of distilling and understood the process a lot better than many of his local white brethren. He built stills, studied the chemical process of fermentation, and even helped pioneer the legendary sugar maple charcoal filtration that has become the signature aspect of the taste and texture of real Tennessee sippin’ whiskey.
Rev. Call had originally operated his own still, in a forested grove on his own property, but eventually gave in to the peer pressure of those in his congregation who refused the Devil Alcohol and thought it unseemly that a man of God would even drink the stuff, much less produce it. Call knew Nathan Green – by now known as “Uncle Nearest”, by illiterate locals who mistook the name Nearis – and invited him (not that, as a slave, he had a lot of choice) to move his still onto Call’s property. After the end of the Civil War, which was almost immediately followed by the start of Prohibition, Call asked Green, now a free man, to stay on and continue making his whiskey. Green readily agreed, as ministers were far less likely than the general public to attract unwanted attention from the newly-minted federal revenue agents.
The relationship was, of course, supposed to be a very dark secret, but Tennesseans had not changed their stripes so much that they took kindly to uppity Yankees in DC dictating terms. Very quietly, totally by word of mouth, whiskey lovers as far away as Nashville and Huntsville were told that the best whiskey in Tennessee was being made by a black fella in Lincoln County. As opposed to the “white lightnin’ ” (unaged white whiskey) that most moonshiners turned out, Green’s were aged in wooden barrels and took on a lovely medium amber. The sugar maple charcoal filtration, the last step before aging the hooch, became known as the “Lincoln County Process” and was the original mark of quality that all Tennessee whiskey boasts to this day and which Jack Daniel, another area distiller – who received his early training in making whiskey from…Nathan Green – turned into a legend, after the end of Prohibition. “Uncle Nearest”, of course, remained a mystery to the public at large, but a genuine underground legend to whiskey lovers from all across America.
I knew a bit of this from my years in East Tennessee, mostly by osmosis, as I had not yet developed any kind of deep respect and taste for American Bourbons or Sippin’ Whiskeys. I drank whiskey regularly and had my opinions. I found Jack Daniel’s pedestrian; lowest common denominator whiskey. I didn’t think much of Jim Beam or really anything described as “blended”. I wouldn’t touch Four Roses; thought it was, as I said a few times, “Bourbon for old people“. I’ve had a BIG change of heart about almost all of that, BTW. Especially Four Roses – regular old yellow-label Four Roses, not even the Single-Barrel or Small Batch – is my rock-solid house Bourbon. But “Uncle Nearest”…that was the stuff of late-night campfire rumor-mongering, wild claims of having tasted it, despite the fact that the person saying that was something like thirty-five years too young to have even seen it.
So, it shows up at my door – I didn’t really even read the query from the PR firm, asking if I would taste it and maybe review – and I read the label. It was like seeing a unicorn. “Oh, YEAH!” I thought, “Walter’s fairy tale stuff. But…didn’t this just die out, maybe sixty years ago?”
Evidently not. It’s in a slick new package, with gold-leaf lettering and I instantly thought, “Uh-oh…the stench of corporate whiskey.”
Could not have been more wrong.
Uncle Nearest is Brilliant. Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Whiskey is 100 Proof and there’s the biggest hurdle. 100 Proof is not kidding around. 100 Proof is fifty percent alcohol. Fifty percent ABV is guaranteed to burn ya, to give you some degree of the sensation of lighting a sparkler and swallowing it whole. It is not for the faint of heart. Uncle Nearest is also SMOOTH…No, let’s make that SMOOOOOTH. Yeah, it does burn but not like sucking a propane torch. Great whiskey always burns, to some degree, and true whiskey aficionadoes enjoy that burn. I don’t want a whiskey without it. I also don’t want too much of it. And, really, I don’t want too little of it. I want a comfortable burn and that is the exact thumbnail sketch of Uncle Nearest.
As with wines that are higher in ABV, Uncle Nearest has so much stuffing – those flavor elements and dissolved solids that give it immediacy and texture – that the muscular alcohol is amply masked by this torrent of caramel and roasted nuts and honey and apricots and creme brulee and treacle and woodsy vanilla that explodes in every sip. Those big wines – Napa Cabernets and Lodi Zins, especially – have so much flavor and dissolved solids that they literally bury their 14 – 17% ABV under a blanket of Stuff. Same here. The first impression of Uncle Nearest is a roundness and completeness and a chewy depth that you’re seldom going to find in most American whiskeys. It is, to use a term I only rarely attach to whiskey at all, Delicious; like a fat handful of caramel toffee and nut butter and vanilla fudge. It’s almost sinful; a hedonistic richness that 100 Proof mostly precludes.
I’ve waited waaaay past the proper amount of time I usually have to review any sort of submission but, honestly, I kept tasting it, thinking I was just riding a wave of novelty and Knoxville 90s nostalgia. I’m not. That “delicious” thing that I could not get out of my head kept becoming more and more mandatory, every time I tried it.
Uncle Nearest is Brilliant. I’m repeating myself but that’s the nutshell: Brilliant. It’s gonna run you right around $60 a bottle, so it’s not cheap but it IS a bargain, a major, howlin’, smokin’ value whiskey because it delivers what you’d reasonably expect to get from a $120 bottle. It’s THAT good. 100 Points
Post Script, and a great one: Uncle Nearest is not owned by a big corporate conglom, as I had feared from its gorgeous packaging. It’s privately owned and an independent corporation and has as its CEO…Fawn Weaver, a young African American woman – an author who found out about Nathan Green and became fixated on researching his legacy – was one of the driving forces behind reviving the original Nathan Green recipe and methods and who became the first African American ever, in its 20 year history, to grace the cover of American Whiskey Magazine. The current whiskey is produced on contract at two Tennessee distilleries, which have remained carefully anonymous (rumor has it that they MAY be Cascade Hollow Distilling of Tullahoma and Corsair Distillery of Nashville) but it was announced, last year, that the brand’s huge success had prompted the design and construction of a Nathan Green Distillery, a distillery, tasting room, and music hall, to be located in Shelbyville, TN, about five miles from Dan Call’s farm.
Today, Uncle Nearest is sold literally around the world. It’s hugely in demand by Japanese whiskey connoisseurs and even has jaded Scottish drinkers clamoring for more.
Just on a personal note – as a Southerner by birth and someone who was so repelled by the South’s heinous record of discrimination and savagery against blacks that I moved all the way to Seattle to get out of the virulent remnants of that culture, it is grimly satisfying to me to see parts of the South, however slowly and painfully, begin the process of accepting and honoring the enormous cultural contribution of its early African American settlers. Enslaved as they were, those early ancestors invented things and educated themselves when their masters would have none of it, and literally determined most of the evolution of the music and cuisine and oral history of the South. Their white-washing into obscurity is the worst “achievement” of my own people; a hateful, fear-driven legacy of oppression that tainted much of my pride in being a Southerner and still makes me angry, fifty-five years later.
In a literal sense, Nathan Green is mostly responsible for the fact that we have Tennessee Sippin’ Whiskeys at all. He trained a very young Jack Daniel and taught him the ancient African practice of purifying water by dripping it through charcoal, adapting the idea to whiskey and filtering with sugar-maple coals. Daniel later made Nathan Green his distillery master, enduring the anger of his patrons at having a black man involved in his business, in recognition of his own debt to Uncle Nearest and of the fact that nobody in the country was making better whiskey. What transpired between the time Green was at Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg and Daniel’s whiskey as it stands today is a mystery but it’s a matter of ONE sip of this to see that Uncle Nearest and JD took very different paths.
The fact that this glorious stuff exploded upon the American whiskey scene and was one of two brands just named World’s Best at Whisky Magazine’s 2019 World Whiskies Awards in New York, is a source of a fairly unattractive feeling of vindication for me; a thumb in the eye of all those racist jackasses I met in my life in Virginia and North Carolina and Tennessee and South Carolina, who would probably refuse to even taste this whiskey, just on principle…on a stunted, ignoble, vindictive, small-minded principle.
I think of this whenever I lift the glass to sip Uncle Nearest. It doesn’t make me feel noble, by any stretch, but it does warm my cranky old cockles the way watching the end of “The Natural” does when Max Mercy and Gus Sands and Memo Paris and The Judge can only sit and ponder their sins as Roy Hobbs knocked the lights out. I think of Knoxville and my Virginia and Tennessee mountains and sip in their memory. A bit, just a touch, of sweetness is restored to me and the memory of those languid sunsets and innocent days before I found out how much hate a human heart can hold. Uncle Nearest is not redemption, by a long shot, but it lays a finger just barely on the scales of it and holds the promise that it’s still possible that other wrongs, other omissions, can be addressed, a thing which I had never thought to see in my lifetime.