To many spirit drinkers, Jack Daniels is a legendary Tennessee whiskey named after the man who founded the best-selling drink.
When Daniels was a kid, he worked for a distiller named Dan Call and, for years, many believed that Daniels learned the art of making whiskey directly from Call. However, over 150 years after the famous whiskey brand was founded, it was revealed that Daniels did not learn distilling from his employer — he learned how to make the prized spirit from Nathan "Nearest" Green, a Black man who was enslaved by Call.
According to Fawn Weaver, an author and entrepreneur, Green was the country's first African American master distiller. When the story was first made public, however, many wondered why Green was left out of the history books. The answer remains unclear.
"When (Jack and his descendants) owned the distillery, everyone knew who Nearest Green was," Weaver told Al Roker during an interview for the 3rd hour of TODAY. "After the last of his descendants to run the distillery, Reagor Motlow ... died in '78, the story disappeared immediately after. I could not tell you how or why. The only thing I know is it didn't happen under Jack Daniel's watch."
Weaver first learned about Daniels' teacher four years ago when the New York Times published an article about the 150th anniversary of the beloved American brand when Jack Daniels' historians finally revealed the true story about its founder.
The article featured a photo of Daniels sitting next to a Black man. Weaver worked with the town of Lynchburg, where Green and Daniels lived, to find out exactly who the man was.
During Al's interview with Weaver, he learned about how she is cementing Green's legacy for generations to come. In 2017, Weaver connected with Victoria Butler, a descendent of Green, and they decided to start a distillery: Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey.
Based in Shelbyville, Tennessee, the distillery makes premium whiskies using a recipe from the 19th century.
Weaver founded the brand three years ago and spoke with Green's family about how best to honor their ancestor.
"And the consensus was, his name should be on a bottle," Weaver said.
In September 2019, the Nearest Green Distillery opened for visitors. While it is temporarily closed to the public due to coronavirus pandemic, future visitors will be able to book founders' tours, bus tours and VIP tastings.
Even though the property makes alcohol, Weaver said the distillery has something for people of all ages.
"The distillery itself was envisioned not just as a place for people who are going to go to drink whiskey,” she said. “If you have a grandmother who’s a teetotaler or you have an 11 year old, there is going to be something for everyone no matter the age.”
Butler also spoke with Al and revealed that she had known for her "whole life" Green mentored Daniels.
"As odd as it might seem, I really believe that whiskey is in my blood," she said.
Butler said reflecting on her great-great-grandfather and his legacy was "very emotional."
"I would like to think that he is proud of that fact that, after more than 160-plus years, the world if finally knowin' his name, and his contribution to the spirits industry," she said.