This year is the 150th anniversary of Jack Daniel’s, and the distillery, home to one of the world’s best-selling whiskeys, is using the occasion to tell a different, more complicated tale. Daniel, the company now says, didn’t learn distilling from Dan Call, but from a man named Nearis Green — one of Call’s slaves.
This version of the story was never a secret, but it is one that the distillery has only recently begun to embrace, tentatively, in some of its tours, and in a social media and marketing campaign this summer.
“It’s taken something like the anniversary for us to start to talk about ourselves,” said Nelson Eddy, Jack Daniel’s in-house historian.
Frontier history is a gauzy and unreliable pursuit, and Nearis Green’s story — built on oral history and the thinnest of archival trails — may never be definitively proved. Still, the decision to tell it resonates far beyond this small city.
For years, the prevailing history of American whiskey has been framed as a lily-white affair, centered on German and Scots-Irish settlers who distilled their surplus grains into whiskey and sent it to far-off markets, eventually creating a $2.9 billion industry and a product equally beloved by Kentucky colonels and Brooklyn hipsters.
Left out of that account were men like Nearis Green. Slavery and whiskey, far from being two separate strands of Southern history, were inextricably entwined. Enslaved men not only made up the bulk of the distilling labor force, but they often played crucial skilled roles in the whiskey-making process. In the same way that white cookbook authors often appropriated recipes from their black cooks, white distillery owners took credit for the whiskey.
Some also see the move as a savvy marketing tactic. “When you look at the history of Jack Daniel’s, it’s gotten glossier over the years,” said Peter Krass, the author of “Blood and Whiskey: The Life and Times of Jack Daniel.” “In the 1980s, they aimed at yuppies. I could see them taking it to the next level, to millennials, who dig social justice issues.”
Jack Daniel’s says it simply wants to set the record straight. The Green story has been known to historians and locals for decades, even as the distillery officially ignored it.
According to a 1967 biography, “Jack Daniel’s Legacy,” by Ben A. Green (no relation to Nearis), Call told his slave to teach Daniel everything he knew. “Uncle Nearest is the best whiskey maker that I know of,” the book quotes Call as saying.