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Uncle Nearest, Our Spirit Brand of the Year, Explores Whiskey’s Overlooked History | Wine Enthusiast’s 2020 Wine Star Awards

The story of Nearest Green, a Tennessee whiskey brand located in Shelbyville, about an hour outside of Nashville, begins with CEO Fawn Weaver.

A charismatic author and entrepreneur, Weaver’s interest was drawn by an article in the New York Times that focused on the origin story of American whiskey legend Jack Daniel.

That article led her to uncover Nearest Green, the person. Nathan (a k a  Nearest) Green was an enslaved Black man who distilled whiskey as early as the 1850s, noted for teaching a young Jack Daniel the craft of distillation and eventually becoming a mentor to him.

Weaver began a journey to uncover the history of “Uncle Nearest,” and ultimately built a whiskey brand around his legacy.

Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey launched in July 2017. It commemorates the first Black master distiller on record, posthumously anointed by Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey.

Since its release, Uncle Nearest has become the fastest-growing independent premium American whiskey brand in U.S. history, with 100% growth each quarter to date, and selling 60,000 cases in 2019. Even in an extraordinarily difficult year for the spirits industry, the company blew past its 2020 sales projections.

The brand has found a devoted fan base, not just because of the story, but because of the liquid in the bottles, and the people behind the liquid.

Sherrie Moore, a member of Jack Daniel’s family, who had spent more than three decades as head of whiskey production there, offered to come out of retirement to oversee whiskey production for Uncle Nearest. Meanwhile, Victoria Eady Butler, the great-great-granddaughter of Nearest Green, signed on as master blender.

Nearest Green's bottling facility
Nearest Green’s bottling facility / Photo by Stacy Preston

In September 2019, Uncle Nearest opened its own facility. While the whiskey currently is sourced from two other distilleries in Tennessee, the brand has been co-distilling and laying down its own barrels since 2017, with plans to begin distillation on site in late summer 2021.

The distillery and visitors center are just the first stage of building what Weaver calls “the Disneyland of distilleries.” A Tennessee whiskey museum, the world’s longest bar, a mini golf course and a concert pavilion are part of the long-term plans.

“I consider Tennessee whiskey to be authentically American, and there was always an African-American influence,” Weaver says. “There’s no other whiskey that not only gives us credit, but makes us part of the story.”

For building a brand that has connected deeply with consumers, leading to rapid growth even during one of the most challenging economic cycles in recent history, Uncle Nearest is Wine Enthusiast’s Spirit Brand of the Year. —Kara Newman

See the rest of our 2020 Wine Star Awards winners!