When you hear the name Jack Daniel, whiskey probably comes to mind.
But what about the name Nathan "Uncle Nearest" Green?
In 2016, The New York Times published a story about the distiller's "hidden ingredient" — "help from a slave." In the article, the brand officially acknowledged that an enslaved man, Nearest Green, taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. Since then, scholars, researchers and journalists have descended upon Lynchburg, Tennessee, hoping to learn more about a man who, until then, had appeared as a mere appendage in the story of the country's most popular whiskey brand.
As a scholar of tourism whose research involves highlighting marginalized populations and counternarratives, I followed these developments with keen interest.
For example, James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson's enslaved chef, traveled with Jefferson in 1784 to France, where he trained in French cooking at the highest culinary level. He ended up being instrumental in introducing legendary dishes like macaroni and cheese, ice cream and French fries to the United States.
Neither James nor Peter Hemings was a hobby chef or leisure brewer; this was their forced way of life. And the enslaved people who crafted new dishes didn't set out to change American cuisine. They simply needed to make do with what little they had.
Enslaved cooks were responsible for introducing ingredients and the know-how of such complex and labor-intensive dishes as oyster stew, gumbo, jambalaya and fried fish. However, their voices, names and creations were routinely left out of cookbooks, where their white owners received the credit and the acclaim.
Nearest's Legacy Unveiled
Now one name — Nearest Green — has become synonymous with whiskey.
Years later, Jack Daniel, a 7-year-old white orphan, was sent to the Call farm to be a chore boy. Eventually, he became Green's apprentice and was taught the Lincoln County Process, which differentiates bourbon from Tennessee whiskey — making Nearest responsible for the Tennessee whiskey we know today. Victoria Eady-Butler, Green's descendant and former employee of Jack Daniel's Distillery, noted that there would "never have been Jack Daniel's made without a Green on the property."
After emancipation, Call sold his distillery to Jack Daniel. Daniel appointed Nearest Green, by then a free man, to be the Jack Daniel Distillery's first master distiller, and thus the first Black master distiller on record in the United States. Weaver discovered that sometime after 1881, Daniel moved his distillery to its current Cave Spring Hollow location, where several of Green's children and grandchildren went to work for him.
Nearest's second-born and fourth-born sons, George and Eli, distilled whiskey on the Call Farm alongside Jack Daniel. Although no images of Nearest Green exist, a photograph shows one of his sons, George, sitting next to Jack Daniel.
Altogether, seven generations of Nearest Green's family have worked for the Jack Daniel Distillery and continue to work there to this day.
Weaver was able to meet Green's descendants during her research and asked them how they would like to see him honored. They told her that "putting his name on a bottle, letting people know what he did, would be great."
Unearthing and celebrating stories like Green's is part of a push by scholars and travel companies to expand marketing and storytelling in ways that include overlooked or silenced perspectives.
In 2020, Nomadness Travel Tribe partnered with Tourism RESET, where I serve as a co-director and research fellow, to publish a report that included both qualitative in-depth interviews and a quantitative survey of more than 5,000 tourists to better understand the travel experiences of Black people and other people of color.
Meanwhile, the Black Travel Alliance, also in partnership with Tourism RESET, recently launched a new timeline and website, History Of Black Travel, which seeks to educate the public on "how the African diaspora traveled to every part of the Earth."
Ideally these efforts will create spaces for dialogue around difficult topics like race and enslavement while authentically honoring and amplifying the voices and legacies of Black Americans who helped to build the United States.
And hopefully more stories of people like Nearest Green — an accomplished Black man with a rich, nuanced life — will emerge.
Stefanie Benjamin is Assistant Professor of Retail, Hospitality, and Tourism Management, University of Tennessee. She is also a co-director and research fellow at Tourism RESET.