Blending whiskey was never part of Victoria Eady Butler’s career plan. She spent decades working in law enforcement, most recently as an analytical manager for the Regional Organized Crime Information Center in Nashville. But her great-great grandfather was Nathaniel “Nearest” Green, an African American distiller who is considered the godfather of Tennessee whiskey and who taught a young Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. As a descendant of such a legend, Butler, too, seemed destined to make her mark on the industry.
Butler entered the world of premium whiskey through Fawn Weaver, who had connected with the Eady family while researching Green’s story. Weaver is the founder and CEO of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey in Shelbyville, Tennessee, as well as an author, entrepreneur, and the woman responsible for bringing Nearest Green’s story to national attention. When Butler retired, Weaver hired her as director of administration for the distillery. But it wasn’t long before Butler’s responsibilities started to evolve.
While working for the distillery Butler became even more intrigued by her ancestor’s story. Curiosity quickly gave way to a fervent interest in the crafts of distilling and blending whiskey, and Butler started learning as much as she could. But perhaps even more important, when it came to blending whiskey Eady found that she had innately sharp instincts and a palette she could trust. In May 2019, Butler was invited to curate the first batch of Uncle Nearest 1884 Small Batch Whiskey, which hit the market two months later and immediately started winning awards. When Butler curated the second batch, the accolades and awards kept coming. By November of that year, Butler was elevated to master blender.
“I really believe whiskey is in my blood. My great-great grandfather started making whiskey in the 1800s, and I believe those skills transcended in me,” Butler said. “Now, after being awarded and honored with Master Blender of the Year, I know I’m on the right track.” Butler is the first female African American master blender of a major brand and the first Black woman to win Whisky Magazine’s Icons of Whisky for Master Blender of the Year.
“Prior to joining the team, I never would’ve guessed this is where I would be today. It’s been a fantastic ride, and I love every minute of it,” Butler said. “This work has unleashed a passion in me that I didn’t know was there.”
The Nearest Green Story
Butler has been listening to stories about her great-great grandfather for as long as she can remember, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that she fully understood the magnitude of his contribution to the world of whiskey.
We know little of Nathan “Nearest” (or “Uncle Nearest”) Green’s early life. Records show that in the 1850s he was enslaved near Lynchburg in Lincoln County, Tennessee, operating a whiskey still on a farm owned by Reverend Dan Call. Green was well known in the area (and beyond) for distilling exceptional whiskey, and Call described him as “the best whiskey maker I know of.” He continually experimented with ways to improve the smoothness and flavor of the spirit, and is credited with perfecting what became known as the Lincoln County Process. This process uses sugar maple charcoal to filter whiskey before aging. It gives Tennessee whiskey its unique flavor profile and distinguishes it from bourbon.
By the late 1850s a young Jack Daniel, whose family lived nearby, left home to work on Call’s farm. By that time Green was fully in charge of the distilling, and he took Daniel under his wing and taught him how to make whiskey—including Green’s new and distinctive “Tennessee style” whiskey using the process he had perfected.
"Equipped with an all-female executive team – and now a female master blender – Uncle Nearest is the only whiskey brand owned by an African American woman. It's also the fastest-growing American spirit in history."
Daniel later bought Call’s still. Green was a free man by then and Daniel hired him as his first head distiller, making Green the first known African American master distiller in the U.S. Three of Green’s sons and three of his grandsons worked at the distillery after him, continuing his legacy. Several of his descendants are a part of the staff at the Jack Daniels distillery today, including a number of Butler’s siblings.
In 2013 the governor of Tennessee signed a law stating that Tennessee whiskey must adhere to the Lincoln County Process, since that process sets Tennessee whiskey apart from other spirits—further testimony of Green’s lasting impact on the industry.
A Brand with Many Firsts
Weaver founded Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey in 2017 as a way to ensure that Nearest Green’s legacy would live on. Equipped with an all-female executive team – and now a female master blender – Uncle Nearest is also the only whiskey brand owned by an African American woman. After celebrating 10 consecutive quarters of 100% growth, Uncle Nearest is also the fastest-growing American spirit in history.
When asked about the secret to the brand’s success, Butler is quick to reply: “Fawn Weaver is a brilliant business woman. She is very driven and has a passion for distillery life. We’re also working in our lane. We don’t let statistics or articles or other people decide our destiny. We run at an accelerated pace every day, but we do so with excellence.”
Weaver and her team launched the brand with their 1856 Premium Batch Whiskey, an 8- to 14-year-old, 100 proof whiskey named for the year Nearest Green perfected the Lincoln County process of distilling whiskey. It was awarded the gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2020. Next, the 1884 Small Batch Whiskey is a 7-year-old blend named for the last year Green put whiskey in a barrel. It was also a 2020 Gold Medal winner at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Finally, the 1820 Single Barrel, 11-year-old whiskey is the rarest of the three expressions. Only 1% of the barrels selected ever make it to the bottle, and it can only be purchased at the Nearest Green distillery.
Butler notes that the brand was created in an atmosphere of inclusion with a team that reflects America. “We want people to know that everyone is welcome for a seat at our table,” she said. While that may account for some of the brand’s success, there’s no overlooking the fact that it’s also very good whiskey.
The future looks bright for Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, and Butler is excited for what lies ahead. The brand has been able to maintain its status as an award-winning whiskey. Growth continues at an unprecedented rate. And the opening of the second phase of the distillery creates new opportunities for success as a premier visitor destination. Above all, the legacy of Nearest Green is now firmly entrenched, never to be forgotten. “The focus is, was and always will be Nearest Green,” Butler said. “His legacy is what drives me, and it’s what drives our entire team.”
The Nearest Green Distillery
Although the first phase of the Nearest Green Distillery opened in the fall of 2019, it closed to visitors in 2020 due to COVID-19. With the opening of phase two, which took place on June 19, 2021, or Juneteenth, visitors can once again enjoy tasting, tours and more. Located in Shelbyville, Tennessee on what was once a Tennessee Walking Horse farm, the facility includes a single barrel warehouse, family tasting room and restaurant. A new Welcome Center pays homage to a collection of Tennessee inventions, from Tennessee whiskey and Tennessee Walking Horses to Tennessee music and plenty of Uncle Nearest merchandise. Go for the whiskey or go for the history. Either way, it’s worth the drive.
If you can't make it to the Distillery, master distiller Victoria Eady Butler shares a favorite cocktail recipe to make at home:
1.5 ounces Uncle Nearest 1884 Small Batch Whiskey
2 dashes Regan’s orange bitters
1 tsp. raspberry preserves
½ ounce simple syrup
½ ounce fresh lemon juice
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice, and shake vigorously (to break down the raspberry preserves) until everything is chilled and combined. Strain into a glass (without ice) and enjoy.
Glassware: Nick and Nora coupe or martini glass.
Garnish: Orange pigtail.
Note: This cocktail may sound sweet, but it’s not; the lemon gives it a great balance.
Learn More About Nearest Green's Story
If you want to learn more about Nearest Green’s extraordinary legacy, this short film produced by the Uncle Nearest team explores his life and contributions to American distilling. You can also read more on the Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey website.
This article was written by Lori Murray and originally appeared on July 08, 2021 at OHLQ: Ohio Liquor.