What’s Jack Daniel’s Secret? Contribution From A Tennessean Slave In The 1800s

Most Jack Daniel’s whiskey drinkers know the birthplace of the famous drink that has become such an American drink that it’s now the secret ingredient in a sauce served on your T.G.I Friday’s burger. It’s written right on the label beneath the Daniel family’s name. But what Jack Daniel’s hasn’t revealed until recently is the contribution of a slave in 1850 by the name of Nearis Green.

Nearis Green went by Uncle Nearis and was well-known for making the best whiskey around. He was owned by a Tennessee distiller, and preacher Dan Call, whose testimony in the 1967 biography of the Jack Daniel, praised Nearis for his contribution to American whiskey. Dan Call was the distiller who took Jack Daniel in when he was a homeless man in Lynchburg, Tennessee. Now, almost 50 years after the biography titled Jack Daniel’s Legacy, Jack Daniel’s is using its 150-year anniversary celebration to finally honor the legacy of Nearis Green.

Telling the history of Jack Daniel’s is a marketing normality for the company. For years, Jack Daniel’s has employed historians and writers to tell the story of how a farmer’s kid in Tennessee changed Irish and Scottish whiskey-making traditions by replacing the caramel taste with sour mash. One historian, Nelson Eddy, told the New York Times what encouraged Jack Daniel’s to add Nearis Green to the Jack Daniel’s story.

“It’s taken something like the anniversary for us to start to talk about ourselves.”

whiskey distillers jack daniels
With critics wondering why Jack Daniel’s waited 150 years to mention the clever man who helped bring the company to its feet, Jack Daniel’s saw fit to explain that leaving Nearis Green out was not intentional. The issue some have with this excuse is that it was stated by Jack Daniel’s brand manager, Phil Epps.

“I don’t think it was ever a conscious decision.”

It may have been unconscious on the part of Jack Daniel’s, but the American portrayal of whiskey distillation was always painted as a white American tradition brought over from Europe. But based on the years in which whiskey-making began in the United States, it’s no secret that distillery owners weren’t doing their own labor.

The Times admitted that there are “deep ties between slavery and whiskey.” So as Jack Daniel’s historians began to search for new and exciting facts about how the distillery became world famous, they began to stumble into countless records of enslaved distillers. Experts of Southern history at the Virginia Polytech Institute claim that a minimum of three slaves worked at each American distillery. This included George Washington’s famous distillery in Mount Vernon, Virginia. Washington’s place had six slaves working as distillers.

[Image by AP Images/Mark Humphrey]
Overall, the slave contribution to American whiskey-making was vast. Yet, historic records failed to document just how much these slaves were involved in the process and creation. Based on what is known about slavery, experts believe that it is highly likely that slaves may have even created the recipes for some of the most famous American whiskeys.

The true credit for the artful American whiskey-making, however, goes to both African and European descendants, whose ancient cultures both involved making alcohol. Jack Daniel’s thusly considers their mention of Nearis Green in the history of Jack Daniel’s whiskey to be a proud moment. Phil Epps attested to this feeling in his recent statement.

“As we dug into it, we realized it was something that we could be proud of.”

Nearis Green was not the only black slave to influence the sour pinch that modern Jack Daniel’s drinkers experience when they down a shot of whiskey. In fact, many of Green’s relatives worked for Jack Daniel’s as well. The newly added part of the Jack Daniel’s story even mentions that some blacks stayed at the Call distillery where Jack Daniel’s was made, long after they were freed.

[Image by AP Images/ Charlie Reidel]