“I just had to lean on my ancestors and hope they showed up,” Victoria Eady Butler says, recounting her early days in blending Uncle Nearest whiskey. Her story is both as new as when she helped start the meteoric rise of the most-awarded American whiskey or bourbon brand in 2019 and as old as Tennessee whiskey itself.
Eady Butler is a trailblazer. Amongst many honors, in 2021, she was the first female to be awarded Master Blender of the Year at the American Icons of Whisky Awards. In 2022, she became the first to win that title back to back, having started in administration with the company in 2019 before elevating to master blender just nine months later. She is also the great-great-granddaughter of Nathan “Nearest” Green, the once-forgotten “first African-American master distiller on record and founding father of Tennesse whiskey.”
Eady Butler does not talk about herself or awards for long as the non-profit Nearest Green Foundation is often on her mind. She animatedly explains her palate-protecting process: no spitting whiskey out, no water and no drinking any other whiskey–but her focus is on the award-winning finish.
Green was born around 1820 in Maryland, but details of his early life are unknown. In the mid-1880s he worked as an enslaved man on a Tennessee farm. Green was known for distilling the smoothest whiskey in the area. He is credited for perfecting the Lincoln County Process, filtering whiskey through sugar-maple-charcoal as the defining step that differentiates Tennessee whiskey from all others.
In the 1850s, Green met a young boy named Jack Daniel who was working on the farm. He mentored Daniel in life and whiskey as he did his own children. After the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December of 1865, Green was a free man, able to use his talents to secure prosperity for his family.
The Greens helped found the Jack Daniel’s Distillery. Sometime between 1881 and 1884, Jack Daniel’s moved the distillery from Call Farm to its current location in Lynchburg, and while Nearest decided to retire, three of his sons joined Daniel’s. Today, the Green and Daniel’s families are still intertwined, remaining friends and coworkers across generations, with a Green family member always having worked at Jack Daniel’s. Yet beyond Lynchburg, no one knew of Nearest Green’s role in creating Tennessee whiskey.
Best-selling author, historian, and entrepreneur Fawn Weaver came upon the story. Her passionate research pursuit and the family’s interest in having Green’s name on a whiskey label led to Weaver founding Uncle Nearest in 2017.
What do you wish you knew when you started working in the industry?
There isn’t anything that I wish I had known that would directly impact my work, but I’m grateful for the knowledge I’ve gained thus far and the people that are now colleagues.
How has your family’s history influenced your work today?
My work wouldn’t even be possible had it not been for my great-great-grandfather who laid the cornerstone for everything I do regarding blending.
The whiskey is a byproduct of who we are. Nearest Green not only made whiskey but made history.
What is the culture of Uncle Nearest like, and how does it differ from other whiskey distilleries?
We are a family who genuinely cares for each other, and the bond our family has is authentic and visible. We love out loud and without pretense. I can’t definitively speak to the culture at other distilleries as I’ve not had an inside look at how others operate day-to-day, but I would venture to guess that it’s nothing like the culture at Uncle Nearest.
Who’s the most underrated person in drinks?
Jackie Summers, the creator of Sorel Liqueur. He was basically unknown to the masses until a little over a year ago. It’s not just his years in the industry, his knowledge and experience, and the beautiful, unmatched liqueur he produces. It’s his resilience and the humbleness that he personifies. His ability to persevere in spite of the many setbacks he’s faced should not be overlooked.
You’re at a dive bar. What do you order?
Uncle Nearest 1884 on the rocks.
Published: August 24, 2022