Jummy Olabanji

DC Woman Carries On Legacy of Formerly Enslaved Man Who Inspired Jack Daniel's Whiskey

One woman left D.C. to follow in the footsteps of master whiskey distiller Nearest Green — the formerly enslaved man who first taught the creator of Jack Daniel’s to distill

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Jack Daniel is a household name in the whiskey industry — and throughout the world. But did you know the name Nearest Green?

Without him, there might not be Jack Daniel’s as we know it.

Green is the man who taught Daniel how to distill back in the 1800s — before he was freed from slavery.

Now, one D.C. woman who is inspired by Green’s story has decided it's time to carry on his legacy more than a century later by becoming a master distiller who is Black.

Tracie Franklin recently left her job in D.C. and now travels back and forth between home and rural Tennessee where she’s learning to make whiskey and learning some American history.

“I realized that there was a whole world in whiskey,” Franklin said.

Franklin went from blogging about the liquor to working behind the scenes of the industry’s biggest brands. But to understand how she got here, we have to go back to the 1800s.

Tracie Franklin left her job in D.C. to pursue whiskey making in rural Tennessee (Photo: Tracie Franklin)

Nathan "Nearest" Green was an enslaved man who worked as a distiller on a farm in Tennessee. In the 1850s, Nearest Green began teaching a young man named Jasper Newton Daniel the ins and outs of distilling whiskey.

Newton would take all he learned from Green and, after the Civil War and abolition of slavery, went on to make whiskey under his nickname: Jack Daniel.

Green, a free man, was hired as Jack Daniel’s first head distiller, the company said. Nearest’s son, George Green, went on to work at the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Tennessee as well.

Jack Daniel’s is now the top selling American whiskey in the world.

Fawn Weaver first heard of Nearest Green a few years ago. Captivated by the story, she moved to Lynchburg, Tennessee, to unearth more about Green. Along the way, she decided to pull his story out of the shadows and onto its own whiskey label — Uncle Nearest.

Uncle Nearest is one of the fastest-growing whiskey brands in the United States

Uncle Nearest is now the fastest-growing whiskey brand in America. 

“African Americans, we were disconnected from our roots,” Weaver said. “The ability to actually bring someone back to their roots… I haven’t even been able to do that for my own family. So, to be able to do that for another family, it’s like I did it for my own.”

And that’s where Tracie Franklin joins the story. Jack Daniel’s and Uncle Nearest recently created the Nearest and Jack Advancement Initiative — a $5 million dollar project that aims to diversify the industry with an apprenticeship program and distilling school. 

"Tracie is such a great person to be out there in public letting other people see there is such a thing as a black distiller," Weaver said.

Franklin spends her days at the Nearest and Daniel's distilleries in rural Tennessee where she’s learning everything in distillation, including how to give whiskey its flavor and color. She hopes being a part of this program shows why inclusion matters and why history matters.

“I'm really excited to be part of an even more dynamic change, being a part of the process, being a part of that flavor, being part of the industry that makes decisions is going to change the world,” Franklin said.

One day, she hopes to be a master distiller like Nearest Green and hopes she’s making his family proud.

At least one descendant of Nearest Green has always worked at Jack Daniel's — and now the family is working down the road, right along with Franklin at Nearest Green.

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