Behind the Booze: Fawn Weaver of Uncle Nearest WhiskeyEdit Post
Contributed by on Oct 28, 2019
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Uncle Nearest Whiskey’s founder shares tales of relocating to rural Tennessee to found a distillery
All photos courtesy Uncle Nearest Whiskey
Fawn Weaver is known today as the woman who turned Nearest Green’s legacy into a dedicated whiskey brand, but before that she was a best-selling author and tech entrepreneur living in California with no ties to the spirits industry. Green, a.k.a. “Uncle Nearest”, was the former slave who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. The story about Nearest’s ties to the Jack Daniel’s distillery has been known to locals in Lynchburg, the Tennessee town where it is located, and was written about decades ago in a book about Jack Daniel. When the story and its book were uncovered once again recently by Clay Risen in The New York Times in an effort to highlight Green’s legacy, Weaver read the story and decided she had to know more about this mysterious African-American man who made such a huge impact on the spirits industry in America. She planned her 40th birthday trip to Lynchburg, Tennessee, so she could interview anyone she could find with memories or stories of Uncle Nearest. Her plan was to write a book and movie about Nathan ‘Nearest’ Green, followed by producing a commemorative bottle of whiskey. What she learned on that first fateful trip not only cemented her resolve to honor this great man’s legacy, but it also sparked a cross-country move, and the building of a new distillery to honor his legacy to produce a whiskey that right out of the gate, won a silver medal in the 2019 NY International Spirits Competition. Below is the story, edited for clarity, of that first step in the journey to what today has become the Uncle Nearest Distillery.
Fawn Weaver: My focus was literally book, movie, and some type of commemorative bottle, not a brand. As we [Fawn and her husband Keith Weaver] began driving into it, I didn't realize starting a commemorative bottle or anything else was so expensive. The barrier to entry is very low, meaning you can just buy a barrel and you can get a few bottles, but to do it right when you're talking about someone's legacy, then you have to make a certain number of them. Then we realized it was going to be very expensive and it would not make sense unless it was going to be a true brand that was really built to last.
The whole process changed when we went to see Nearest’s descendants and we went to see Hidden Figures. The movie was fantastic. It was amazingly done, and when we left the theater, I thought this is it, this is exactly how the movie about Nearest needs to be. Kevin Costner’s character was a hero and then you had the hidden figures [the African American women scientists credited with making the space travel possible and coming up with the math to safely land the astronauts] who are also heroes. But you at least got to see both races as heroes, and I love that. I found out later that the Kevin Costner role was made up [it’s an almalgam of different people behind the scenes] and I'm sad about that, and I would have loved for that to have been a real person. But nonetheless you have the movie showing this is how it needs to be. They both need to be seen as heroes.
After that, my focus shifted from being a book and a movie being the big pieces of the story to that bottle sitting on the shelf. That's what's cements his legacy, literally no other medium can make sure that a hundred years from now people still know his name and his story. And so that's where we shifted to not just building a brand for a bottle that is commemorative, but building a brand that is meant to last for every generation to come.
visitors go on a hard hat your of the distillery in progress
Maggie Kimberl: How much of his story have you been able to uncover from documents, papers, oral histories, and stuff like that?
FW: Quite a bit. I was fortunate that there are a lot of people in Lynchburg who are really old. His granddaughter died earlier this year at the age of 108. Lem Motlow's daughter, who is Jack Daniel's great-niece, died not long after Miss Nellie Mae [his surviving granddaughter], just shy of her 105th birthday. So there were a lot of people.
[There is a] picture of Jack sitting next Nearest’s son, George—[that’s how] we were able to confirm that is George Green, and that George raised his granddaughter, Helen Butler, and she was still alive. She’s now passed on. The folks at Jack Daniel’s were very kind to let me do a private tour for her. So we brought her in with some of the elders of the African-American community that are related and we did a private tour. We took her up to the top of their property where she grew up, because George Green owned all the land that they now own, and his kids sold it to Jack Daniel’s. When he was alive, he owned all the land and he raised her on it.
So she turns to the tour guide and says, ‘People tell me you have a picture of my granddaddy in here. Take me to see it and I'll tell you if it's him.’
So we took her in her wheelchair and we pushed her up to it and she gets out of her wheelchair and looked at the picture and says, ‘Yep that's him, Daddy George.’
That's how we confirmed who was in the picture with Jack. So the great thing was that these people were still alive when we began this.
MK: You got in under the wire
FW: Yes, we got there right before they all started to pass away, one right after the other.
MK: So this was another sign that this was the path you were supposed to be on, because you got there right at the opportune moment.
FW: Nearest’s granddaughter [Nellie Mae] was 106 when I interviewed her.
MK: Did you do video or audio on anything?
FW: Everything. I did video and audio on everything the first several months with the elders of the community and the elders of Nearest’s family. I got it all on video.
MK: Is that going to be incorporated into your visitor’s experience at all?
FW: No, because Miss Nellie Mae was 106 years old and she never got out of her housecoat. There are things that are very casual that no one would want displayed. They were fine with me videoing it to have for posterity, but they wouldn't want it for people to see them. I brought in a film crew that I was working with to make sure that I could capture the story.
But I knew that when we began to just say, yes he was a slave, but Jack was not his slave owner, and they actually had this amazing mentor-mentee, teacher-pupil relationship, and friendship, I knew that that would be challenged. That Lynchburg, the city itself, was this amazing city in which blacks and whites walked down the streets side by side, they played in the creeks together, and where the integration of schools, according to African-American school teachers, was a non-issue. The kids were already playing together before and after school. They were just excited to be able to play together during the day. I had never heard of a city in the South like that. And that it was happening in a city called ‘Lynchburg’ was unbelievable, and so I knew that it was unlikely anyone would believe me.
So I brought a camera crew to record the different things. So like one time I wasn’t recording, I was just sitting and shooting the breeze with two of Nearest’s descendants, one was his wife. His picture was in the original New York Times article but he said in the article, ‘I don’t know how I’m related, my mother just told me we’re related.’ As it turns out I've done the whole family tree and he's not a blood relative, he's a relative by marriage. He was the person who I went down there to interview, who was 91 at the time. When I called him he said, ‘Listen, I don't know if I'll still be here when you get here, but if I'm still here you can interview me.’
I was interviewing him and I was interviewing Nearest’s granddaughter and I was interviewing his wife, Dot, who spent 40 years as a school teacher. She went from having all black students to integration, and she said she was afraid she was going to hear the n-word but never once did I have that problem.
I was sitting with her and I said, ‘Miss Helen, tell me what happened during Jim Crow laws? How did you handle going in the back door?’
She said, ‘Why would I go through the back door?’
And I said, ‘Well during Jim Crow Laws you had to go through the back door.’
And she repeated, “Why would I go through the back door?’ Like it literally was not comprehending with her.
I have learned that in Lynchburg, of all the stores on the Square there were only two that followed Jim Crow laws. The rest of them, whether you are black or white, you came in and you did business just like anybody else. And the two that did follow Jim Crow laws after hours were so friendly with the African-American families. It's because the courthouse in Lynchburg, which served communities from all around that were not accepting of blacks and white side by side, so those businesses were trying to get tourist business.
So I was talking with Miss Helen about the Coffee Cup where you go to get ice cream, and I was told that Blacks had to go through the back door to get ice cream. She said, ‘Why would I go through the back door when ice cream was in the front?’
At that point I pulled out my iPad and pressed record and I said, ‘I’m going to need to have this conversation recorded.’ So I said, ‘What would you do when you went to get ice cream?’
She said, ‘I would go through the front door, I would pay my nickel, I would get my ice cream, and I would go home.’
And I said, ‘But what about Jim Crow laws?’
And her exact quote was, ‘I don’t know nothing about no Jim Crow Laws.’
It was story after story after story as I was talking to the Greens that I was able to piece it together. They told me when they were walking down the street, Jack’s family would always stop and show us the utmost respect and spend hours literally talking in the streets. For them it was normal.
It was crazy that they seemed to have figured out this race thing and we’re still trying to figure it out.
MK: So you’ve since moved there, right?
FW: Oh yes, I live in the house that Jack’s sisters built.
MK: So where did you come from and what has your experience been?
FW: Marina Del Ray, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I absolutely love Lynchburg. We’re actually restoring a house right outside of Lynchburg, so I’m telling people I’m Lynchburg-adjacent rather than saying I’m moving to Shelbyville. I didn’t tell anybody at first because in Lynchburg now—I’m family to them. But the people are amazing. His closest friend now is in Lynchburg. They are thicker than thieves.
When we met [Barrel House BBQ owner] Chuck Baker, this is not a joke, we actually thought Brown-Forman had hired him to kill us. He looked like a redneck, talked like a redneck. We walked through his barbecue restaurant and he takes us and gets the menus and is seating us and asks where we’re from, so we said ‘Los Angeles.’ And he takes a couple of steps and turns around and says, ‘I know exactly who you are.’ And then he just keeps going and seats us and then says, Don’t tell me your name, somebody called me about you. Your name is . . . Fawn and you’re an author.’ This was our first day there, first visit.
He invited us for beers that night. I was only there for a story for four days. My husband was not interested in being in a city called Lynchburg for more than four days. He only went because it was my 40th birthday. So my husband was like, ‘Four days, we’re in, we’re out, you’re going to take your research with you and whatever you can’t get in those four days you’re going to have to do remotely.’
And so Chuck invited us and I said we’ve only got four days, so I’m like I’m going to interview anyone who will talk to me. So we said yeah, let’s do it. He said, ‘Come back at closing time and then we’ll go have beers.’ So we get back and he knows where we’re staying, right after I had just learned myself. He gets some beers and gets into this big, black, jacked-up pickup truck and says to follow him. He looked like a redneck, through and through. And he is a self-proclaimed redneck. It’s not like I’m saying it and it’s a negative thing. So he gets in this truck and we follow him. I’m thinking Lynchburg is super tiny so wherever we go, we’ll be safe. He drives and drives, then makes a right to go up Cobb Hollow and just keeps going. By now it’s dusk and there aren’t many street lights.
Twenty minutes later we arrive at his house. It’s still in Lynchburg, it’s just in the hills. So we’re in the hills and he turns down this dirt road that just has this one porch light that’s off in the distance. My husband turns to me and says, ‘I am never listening to you again. The next time you want to do something on your birthday, it’s not going to happen. The answer is no.’
By that point I was actually a little fearful, and I’m not a fearful person. So I was like, ‘Babe I’m with you, I won’t do this again.’
So we get out and we go to the porch, the only place where there’s light, and Chuck goes, ‘Hey, I want to show you something. Follow me.’
And he starts walking toward the back yard, away from the light. We follow him, because we don’t want him to know we’re a little scared at this point. We see string that’s in a big square. He goes and he jumps down. And it was a pit. It was a six-foot by six-foot by eight-foot pit. At dusk.
MK: This is a nail biter!
FW: He swears, now that it’s all over, that he was just telling us exactly what that pit was made for. All we heard was, ‘I just dug this by hand.’ And both Keith and I were looking, thinking if someone comes up with a shotgun, would I be able to bob and weave and miss each bullet. I had concluded that I could not. So then I just started going, ‘Lord, I have lived a great life, I am so grateful.’ And mind you, Keith was so embarrassed that for my 40th birthday he was taking me to a town called Lynchburg that he didn’t tell anybody where we were going. He told everyone he was taking me bourbon tasting, so everyone would have been looking for us in Kentucky when we would have been in Tennessee. In a pit. With a rental car dumped somewhere.
So I was like, ‘This sucks. Not only are we about to die, no one would even know where to look.’ I later confirmed with Keith that he was thinking the same thing. Not only that it was over, but that there was no place to run.
But then Keith sees this cherry tree and says, ‘Oh look a cherry tree!’ And he makes a bee line for this cherry tree and I’m right behind him. And we get there and Chuck jumps up out of the pit and follows us. Then we make it back to the porch and we look at each other like we made it. Back to the light. We made it. This is a good sign!
So we sat there talking for about half an hour and then headlights from another jacked up pickup truck come rolling down his driveway and all these dudes come jumping out. We’re like, ‘This is it. This is the end.’ And it ended up being a bunch of young guys. Chuck Baker used to be a youth pastor, and the youth still like to come over and hang out with him at his house. He’s the nicest guy in the whole world. He and Keith are literally best friends now.
MK: That is a wild story!
FW: Every time we tell this story he gets so red and then he just starts laughing so hard. Because I’m like, ‘Chuck Baker, why did you, as a redneck, take black people to the sticks at night, on their first trip to Lynchburg, and point out a pit?’
And he just laughs so hard and says, ‘I never would have even thought about that.’ Because he grew up in Lynchburg, and his best friend is African-American. So it just never crossed his mind, the optics of what he was doing. But that is Lynchburg, through and through. The people there are incredible.
MK: It sounds like you’ve landed exactly where you needed to be.
FW: Without question.