Why A Former Slave Is Getting Founding Father Treatment By Jack Daniel's

Sep 15, 2016

Each year, 300,000 people find their way off the beaten path to visit the Jack Daniel's distillery, where until recently, no one could even partake in the famous Old No. 7. But the fact that Lynchburg is in a dry country has only increased the allure. This is a brand built on story and legend.

"This has been a two-year planning vacation for me to come here and see where my boyfriend came from," says Debra Bevill of Lubbock, Texas. "My boyfriend is Jack Daniel's."

Bevill jokes, but she takes her drink-of-choice seriously. She has Jack Daniel's bottles tattooed on her upper arm. She only drinks it straight to honor the history.

Debra Bevill of Lubbock, Texas, says she only drinks Jack Daniel's straight as way to honor its history.
Credit Blake Farmer / WPLN

To this day, all of the whiskey is made in the hills of little Lynchburg, Tennessee. The water comes from the same spring that bubbles up behind the distilling house. And as part of its 150th anniversary, the company is highlighting some of the lesser-known stories — like how a former slave played a key role.

Before taking her long-awaited tour, Bevill knew the highpoints: Jack Daniel leaves home as a young teen, goes to work for Dan Call — ironically, a pastor — and 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.

Jack Daniel's historian Nelson Eddy, left, and Nearis Green descendant Claude Eady pose together in front of a statue of Jack Daniel in the distillery's visitor center. Eady worked more than 40 years in the distillery after growing up in the area.
Credit Blake Farmer / WPLN

"My mother said something to me about it when I was real small, but I didn't think nothing about it back then," says Claude Eady, a 91-year-old relative of Nearis Green who — himself — worked an entire career at the distillery. "It's getting a whole lot of attention now."

As he flips through some black and white photos from the 1940s, he describes making whiskey the very same way they do today — though on a slightly smaller scale — dripping it through charcoal made on site. One shows him packing the black bits in a giant wooden barrel.

"Run the whiskey through the top and it come out the bottom. Take a long time, but it'd go through that charcoal," he says.

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.

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

Really, Eddy isn't sure what Nearis Green's role was, though one book says he was pastor Call's master distiller. Corporate record keeping in 1866 was not what it is today. So there are lots of blanks to fill in.

"There's a lot of mystery there," Eddy says. "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 is the photograph that hangs in the old office."

In that photo, 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. There's even a bar in Nashville that has a cocktail named after Nearis Green.

So why is Jack Daniel's turning up the volume on a potentially racy story? Is it an effort to generate publicity or create some diversity as a potential advertising angle?

"Yeah, that's definitely not the case," says global brand director Phil Epps. "We honestly don't see it as scandalous. … 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 real 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, even though they've been encouraged to do so lately.

Ron Craig only talks about Green if visitors ask, and he says there's not much that's known. He doesn't necessarily buy that the two African-Americans in the photo with Jack Daniel are Green's sons.

"There is no hard truth," he says after finishing a tour, which ends with a glass of lemonade. "I can't tell you exactly for sure what everything was back in the day, and no one else can either."

Promotion of the Nearis Green story is part of a year-long celebration of the company's 150th birthday.
Credit Blake Farmer / WPLN