The Real Story Behind Jack Daniel’s Whiskey

Photo: Nearest Green Foundation

Every year, approximately 275,000 people tour Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. During their tour, they’re told a very straightforward story of Mr. Jack Daniel, a story that leaves out some very important details. 

The basic story explains that when he was a boy in the 1850s, Jack Daniel worked for a man named Dan Call, who was a preacher, grocer, and distiller. Call saw potential in Jack and taught him how to run the whiskey still, and the rest was history. Or was it?

In reality, it was Nathan “Nearest” Green, an enslaved man, who taught Jack the basics of running Call’s whiskey still.

After learning from Green, Jack worked with Call to build his brand and make the whiskey more popular. Eventually, after being forced to choose between whiskey and religion, Call sold the business to then-20-year-old Jack for $25.

Green and his family continued to work for Jack Daniel after he took over the business. In fact, Green was Jack Daniel’s Distillery’s first master distiller and the United States’ first known African-American master distiller. Many of Green’s descendants still work for the distillery to this day.

Jack Daniel (with mustache and white hat) at his distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. The man to his right is George Green, son of Nearest Green, circa 1904.

For a long time, no one recognized Green’s involvement in the building of the Jack Daniel’s whiskey brand. In 2016, though, a writer named Clay Risen aimed to change that when he published a story in the New York Times titled “
Jack Daniel Embraces a Hidden Ingredient: Help From a slave.”

This story was published around the same time as the 150th anniversary of Jack Daniel’s. Risen said in an interview with Gastropod that “it wasn’t a secret” that Green helped Jack Daniel to build his brand, but it also wasn’t “talked about in any real way.”

Fawn Weaver, an African-American entrepreneur, author, and historian, was moved by Risen’s story, which she came across while traveling through Singapore.

Weaver described the experience of reading it and learning about Nearest Green as “mind-boggling.” She also added that it’s well-known that African-Americans have been involved in the building of many famous brands for centuries but that it’s not always easy to pinpoint a specific person and learn their name and role.

Risen’s work and the story of Nearest Green made such an impression on Weaver that she went on to co-found the Nearest Green Foundation.

In the “About” section of the foundation’s website, the founders explain that the organization strives to “uphold and share” Nearest Green’s legacy with the world. Although it was once forgotten, the foundation’s members have taken it upon themselves to ensure this never happens again.

How does the Nearest Green Foundation work to accomplish this goal? By offering scholarship opportunities, providing access to research into Nearest Green’s life and contributions, and prioritizing historical preservation through local monuments.

The foundation has produced a short film about Green, too, which is narrated by Emmy-Award winning actor Jeffrey Wright. Those who want to view it and learn more about Green can do so below.