The phrase “Father of Tennessee whiskey” conjures the image of the iconic Jack Daniel’s square-shaped bottle. But when people hear “Godfather of Tennessee whiskey,” they are left scratching their head.
Fawn Weaver, the CEO of Uncle Nearest Whiskey, is working to change that.
Weaver, a New York Times Best-Selling author, was set to write her next book about Nathan Green, known to family and friends as “Uncle Nearest.” Nearest was a former Tennessee slave who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey and is credited as Daniel’s first master distiller.
“We know what Tennessee whiskey is because of Jack Daniels, and so we don’t take away the title ‘Father of Tennessee Whiskey’ from him, but Nearest Green is definitely the Godfather of Tennessee whiskey,” said Weaver.
Weaver wanted to ensure that Nearest’s legacy was engrained in history and memory. She did not want his story to go unknown for another 200 years. Weaver said she had an epiphany from the book and movie “Hidden Figures,” the forgotten or “hidden” story of three black women who changed the course of history.
A month after she saw the movie Weaver found herself forgetting the names of the main characters.
“I ask people all the time, ‘Can you name any of them?’ and no one can.” The moment became a breakthrough for Weaver, who completely changed the direction of her project to memorialize Nearest.
“I realized that a book and a movie would not be the medium to ensure that Nearest’s name was going to live on, it had to be something that would be here 200-years from now. It had to be whiskey.”
Weaver established Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Whiskey in 2017. The entrepreneur and author quickly learned that Nearest’s legacy was truly seeped into every sip of Tennessee whiskey, and that Green’s process of whiskey-making distinguishes Kentucky bourbon from Tennessee whiskey.
“It is taking a traditional whiskey mash and running it through sugar maple charcoal and filtering it that way, and that is not common for any other spirit except Tennessee whiskey. It’s why we say he’s the Godfather of Tennessee whiskey.”
Weaver’s business is working to memorialize the master distiller’s memory, and that means putting Uncle Nearest Whiskey on as many shelves as possible.
According to Weaver, “Uncle Nearest is one of the fastest growing independent spirit brands in American history, period.” Currently, Uncle Nearest Whiskey can be found in nearly 7,000 stores, bars and restaurants. The company has expanded into all 50 states and 10 countries-with shipping available to 148 countries.
This rapid expansion, explained Weaver, is another aspect that makes her company unique.
“We’ve really never seen anything like this in the whiskey business—most whiskey brands would hope to be in their home state and maybe an adjoining state within two years, but we’re not most brands,” said Weaver, smiling.
Uncle Nearest’s legacy sets Weaver’s company apart from any other that has come before it. She tells Fox Business, “What was amazing when I first started in the whiskey business is that I didn’t realize that this was the first American spirit ever to commemorate an African-American. Ever. Can you imagine? We’ve been here 400 years, and ours is the very first.”
Uncle Nearest’s descendants, at first skeptical, have been won over. Victoria Eady-Butler is a great-great-granddaughter of Nearest, and a shareholder of Uncle Nearest and its director of administration.
“When Fawn first agreed to shine a light on our ancestor by putting his name on a bottle two years ago, I never could have imagined where Uncle Nearest would be now,” said Eady-Butler.
Highlighting diversity and creating an inclusive work environment remain pillars of Uncle Nearest Whiskey. Weaver attributes the success of her company to another black American who changed the fabric of American culture—Motown founder Berry Gordy.
“Uncle Nearest follows what I like to call ‘the Motown way’ and bringing people to the table that may not have ordinarily thought they were welcome. We’re saying everybody is welcome to raise a glass to Nearest Green.”
Weaver knows first-hand about Motown and the ‘Motown way.’ Her father was the legendary singer, songwriter, and producer Frank Wilson. Weaver told Fox Business that she is emulating Gordy’s business strategy. She explained that, before Motown, everyone was either marketing white music or marketing black music, but Berry Gordy wanted to create music that brought everyone together.
Weaver described a childhood where she was accustomed to being surrounded by successful black Americans.
“I came up in a house where you got Smokey [Robinson] and Stevie [Wonder] walking through the door, Marilyn McCoo coming up at any moment, and you're calling all these guys ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’” said Weaver. “I only knew the sky's the limit, and I never understood the concept of a glass ceiling, because if the sky's the limit, then there can't be a glass ceiling.”
According to Weaver, being in a household where her father was a part of writing that music that brought people together has been a guiding principle that has stuck with her and which she incorporates into her business strategy today.
“Uncle Nearest is the Motown of whiskey,” she said “Now, I have the pleasure of having a whiskey company that's doing the exact same thing that Berry Gordy did, where we're bringing people to the table that may not ordinarily sit around a table together, but because of Nearest and because they want to raise a glass to him, they're all sitting side-by-side no matter the race or gender.”
Uncle Nearest Whiskey even ranks as the first major spirit brand led by all-minority board of directors and the first major spirit brand led by all-female executive team. Weaver stressed that her company does not discriminate at the top, they’re just using their power to do “what the boys have always done.”
Eady-Butler told Fox Business that Nearest would be surprised by the success tied to his name.
“If my great-great-grandfather were alive today, I know how proud he would be to see us keeping his legacy alive and probably would not even believe himself that people around the world now know his name and what he’s done for whiskey history. “
Weaver has continued to make unprecedented headway in breaking new business boundaries for Uncle Nearest. Her company’s new Tennessee distillery opened to the public in September, further ensuring the world never forgets where the Tennessee whiskey legacy all started.
“The beauty of this whiskey, is that it’s about more than the whiskey,” explained Weaver. “Every single time someone’s pouring from the bottle, they’re telling Nearest’s name, and I’m seeing it more and more around the world. I’m seeing it because people now know who he is.”
Emily DeCiccio is a video producer and reporter for Fox News Digital Originals. Tweet her @EmilyDeCiccio.