Jack Daniel's Heralds A Slave's Role In Its Origin Story

Sep 15, 2016
Originally published on September 16, 2016 9:58 am

Jack Daniel's is a historic brand built on stories and legend. To this day, all of the whiskey is made in the hills of little Lynchburg, Tenn. And as part of its 150th anniversary, the company is highlighting a lesser-known part of its story: how a slave played a key role in its founding.

The story of Nearis Green first got national attention earlier this summer, when The New York Times ran an article about his role in Jack Daniel's history based on a pitch from the company.

Until now, the story usually told about the firm's founding was this: Jack Daniel left home as a young teen, went to work for Dan Call — ironically, a pastor — and ended up helping with Call's whiskey. That's where he learned his trade — perhaps under the tutelage of Green, an African-American who, at the time, was enslaved by Call.

It's not clear exactly what parts of the process Daniel picked up from Green. "There's a lot of mystery there," says Jack Daniel's company historian Nelson Eddy. One book says Green was pastor Call's master distiller.

"We don't know exactly what he taught Jack," Eddy says. "But we do know that Jack had a great deal of respect for that family. Because I think the best part of this story is the photograph."

The photograph he refers to is one that shows Jack Daniel, with a gray goatee, around 1895, surrounded by his crew, including two African-American men believed to be the sons of Nearis Green.

That photo is not a new discovery: It hangs in a place of prominence in Daniel's old office, which is part of the official distillery tour.

Each year, 300,000 people find their way off the beaten path to visit the distillery and learn about its history. They include superfans like Debra Bevill of Lubbock, Texas, who was visiting on vacation earlier this summer and sported Jack Daniel's tattoos on her arms. She said she hadn't heard of Green until now. "I did not know that part," Bevill says, "but I'm not surprised."

Even Green's descendants were kind of in the dark.

"My mother said something to me about it when I was real small, but I didn't think nothing about it back then, you know?" says Claude Eady, a 91-year-old relative of Nearis Green.

Eady himself worked an entire career at the distillery. He's looking through some old photos from the 1940s, when they made whiskey the very same way they do today, running it through charcoal made on site.

"Run the whiskey through the top and it comes out the bottom," he recalls. "[Took] a long time, but it'd go through that charcoal."

This method of mellowing probably wasn't some kind of Green family recipe. Everyone in these hills was making it the same way, says company historian Eddy.

"There were so many people distilling whiskey, and charcoal mellowing was common to this area," Eddy says.

Really, Eddy isn't sure what Green's role was, though the thinking is that he also was involved in the whiskey company when it was founded after the Civil War. Corporate record keeping in 1866 was not what it is today. So there are lots of blanks to fill in.

The fact that a former slave played a part in the company's origin story has been known to those who work there and whiskey insiders. There's even a bar in Nashville that has a cocktail named after Nearis Green. So I asked Phil Epps, the director of Jack Daniel's global marketing, whether the decision to spread the story more widely was part of an effort to promote a more racially diverse image for the company as a potential advertising angle.

"That's definitely not the case," Epps replied. He added, "We honestly just thought that the 150th year is a great opportunity to tell some of those lesser-known stories, and this just happens to be one of them."

The most prominent keepers of the Jack Daniel's story are the tour guides. They have no script to follow — just a batch of tales to pick from. And not all are convinced that Nearis Green's role is worth mentioning. On the tour I attended, guide Ron Craig didn't bring it up until I asked. He says he only talks about Green if visitors inquire.

"There is no hard truth," Craig says. "I can't tell you exactly for sure what everything was back in the day, and no one else can, either."

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Now we're going to keep talking about history and go to the hills of little Lynchburg, Tenn., to the home of Jack Daniel's. And as part of the whiskey's 150th anniversary, the company is highlighting some of the lesser-known stories, including how a former slave played a key role. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN went to Lynchburg to learn more.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Each year, 300,000 people find their way off the beaten path to visit the Jack Daniel's Distillery.

RON CRAIG: Y'all get in here now. Shake hands with Uncle Jack. Here you go. Come and get it. Open your mouth. (Inaudible).

FARMER: Visitors whiff the potent 80-proof air as a tour guide flaps this giant lid of a mellowing barrel two stories tall. Debra Bevill is from Lubbock, Texas, and she's soaking it all in.

DEBRA BEVILL: This has been a two-year planning vacation for me to come here and see where my boyfriend came from.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Laughter).

FARMER: Your boyfriend's from Lynchburg?

BEVILL: No, my boyfriend's Jack Daniel's.

FARMER: A joke, though I was slow to get it. But Bevill takes her drink of choice seriously. She's got Jack Daniel's bottles tattooed on her upper arm. She only takes it straight to honor the history.

Before this tour, Bevill knew the high points. Jack Daniel leaves home as a young teen, goes to work for Dan Call, ironically a pastor, ends up helping with his whiskey still. But she hadn't yet heard about Nearis Green, one of the pastor's slaves. Even Green's descendants were kind of in the dark.

CLAUDE EADY: My mother said something to me about it when I was real small, but I didn't think nothing about it back then, you know?

FARMER: This is Claude Eady, a 91-year-old relative of Nearis Green who himself worked an entire career at the distillery. He's looking through some old photos from the 1940s when they made whiskey the very same way they do today, running it through charcoal made on site.

EADY: Run the whiskey in the top, and it come out the bottom. Take a long time for it to go through that charcoal.

FARMER: This method of mellowing probably wasn't some kind of Green family recipe. Everyone in these hills was making it the same way, says Jack Daniel's company historian Nelson Eddy.

NELSON EDDY: There were so many people distilling whiskey, and charcoal mellowing was common to this area.

FARMER: Really Eddy isn't sure what Nearis Green's role was. Corporate record keeping in 1866 - not what it is today. So there are lots of blanks to fill in.

EDDY: There's a lot of mystery there. We don't know exactly what he taught Jack. But we do know that Jack had a great deal of respect for that family because I think the best part of this story really is the photograph that hangs in the old office.

FARMER: There's Jack Daniel with a gray goatee around 1895 surrounded by his crew, including two African-American men believed to be the sons of Nearis Green. This photo is not some new discovery, and the fact that a former slave played a part in the origin story has been mentioned in books.

So we ask Phil Epps, the director of Jack Daniel's global marketing, whether this was an effort to create some racial diversity as a potential advertising angle.

PHIL EPPS: Yeah, that's definitely not the case, and we honestly don't see it as scandalous. We honestly just thought that, you know, the 150th year is a great opportunity to tell some of those lesser-known stories, and this just happens to be one of them.

CRAIG: Folks, we're going to head into the heart of the whole operation (inaudible).

FARMER: The real keepers of the Jack Daniels story are the tour guides. They have no script to follow, just a batch of tales to pick from. And not all are convinced that Nearis Green's role is worth mentioning. Ron Craig only talks about him if visitors ask.

CRAIG: There is no hard truth. I can't tell you for sure exactly what everything was back in the day, and no one else can either.

FARMER: But increasingly, the Jack Daniel's corporate office hopes the name of a former slave is weaved into the stories told to those who make the pilgrimage here each year. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Lynchburg, Tenn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.