This brand pays homage to the African-American distiller that taught Jack Daniel

April 17, 2024
By Cody Profaca

While the importance of storytelling in marketing and brand building is widely recognised, it is rare for a new brand to emerge onto the market with a story that has the potential to incite discussions around wider social change.

Despite only launching to market in July 2017, the Uncle Nearest brand, named after Nathan ‘Nearest’ Green, has achieved just that. Green remains both the first African-American distiller on record in the US and the first Master Distiller at Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey distillery. The Uncle Nearest whiskey brand, blended by a direct descendent of Green, seeks to not only tell his story but to calibrate errors that have since emerged in the press.

“When you look at Uncle Nearest – which is Nathan ‘Nearest’ Green – the reality is he’s the first African American distiller on record… he was distilling since the 1830s,” said Michael McShane, owner of Swift + Moore, Australia’s importer of Uncle Nearest.

Since launching, the American whiskey brand has championed the origin story of Nathan Green both through various brand-led initiatives along with through the whisky itself.

“I just think in this day and age, people want to engage with brands – they’re interested in the stories, the provenance, the history – they’re not just interested in just the liquid, what they’re interested in is – ‘tell me all about the brand and the story’,” said McShane.

However, part of the Uncle Nearest mission has been to correct media misrepresentations of Nathan Green’s story, including prominent international examples such as this New York Times front cover article. As it stands, all records suggest that Nathan Green had a positive relationship with Jack Daniel and was well reimbursed for his work. In fact, he was likely one of the richest African-Americans at the time. 

The current Master Blender of Uncle Nearest is Victoria Eady Butler, a direct descendent of Uncle Nearest and the first known African-American female whiskey master blender. The misrepresentation of Nathan Green’s story in the media was a contributing factor to her beginning her role at the distillery despite having no prior whiskey experience.

“She read the story in the New York Times, and it was just a little time after that that she went off and researched it, and was just fascinated by it,” said McShane.

“It just goes to show that, even though Butler is not historically a Blender – actually she’s a former cop – it just goes to show that there’s obviously this familial link there that she has a great nose for whiskey and blending. 

“She’s embraced her family history and not only has she survived it, she’s actually thrived in it.”

Uncle Nearest is uniquely positioned as an all minority-led business. It has also paved the way for combining charity goals with a functioning global business model. In conjunction with the whisky brand, Fawn Weaver, CEO and Founder of Uncle Nearest, launched the Nearest Green Foundation, which has established a museum, memorial park, and book about his life. 

“So the modern story is that it’s actually run by women, and it’s actually run by women of colour,” said McShane.

“But I would actually argue it’s also contemporary, because it’s all about contemporary American history, and so far as that it’s represented the way America’s shifted.

“When we introduce it to the Australian consumers, most people when I say ‘have you ever heard of Uncle Nearest or Nearest Green’ most people will say no; and that’s a function of history.”

McShane also believes that the whiskey would not have achieved the following it has if the whiskey not been able to stand on its own. 

“The liquid quite frankly has to stand up to the promise, and that’s part of the thing about it: it’s outstanding,” he said.

“It’s not just people that are buying the story and then being disappointed in the liquid; it’s actually, the whole process from cradle to grave that people are interested in.

“I don’t see it as competing with Jack Daniels. I see it as a brand that sits in what we call that consideration set.

It certainly works well at the moment because now, with the economy at the moment, people are certainly drinking better… People have just paid a lot for their beverages, and so they want to make sure that they’re getting what they would say to be great value, which is, you know, ‘[I’m] not just interested in drinking a liquid, I’m interested in actually drinking a brand’.”

Swift + Moore currently imports two Uncle Nearest whiskeys into Australia. Following a soft launch last year, the distributor has recently started to more actively share the brand’s story with trade. 

“We are going to start by introducing the brand basically to the bar community and getting [them] engaged around it. We want to build awareness for the brand, which is the name and the story,” said McShane. 

“I do feel as if Uncle Nearest launched, say, ten years earlier, it would have been a more challenging market for it… ten or fifteen years ago, I don’t think particularly US was ready for this in the sense that there will be too many people who would’ve been uncomfortable, whereas I think now is the right time, and now is a good time, because people are hungry for knowledge. 

“People wanted to learn from history – they want to understand the history and the heritage of provenance and those sorts of things.”

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