Jack Daniel’s is a brand name that it almost synonymous to American whiskey. It’s a name that you can hear everywhere, but what many people don’t know is that before Jack Daniel’s became the name that it is today, a slave played a big part in the story.
As part of its 150th anniversary, Jack Daniel’s is embracing the glory of the past and building up on the stories and legend that play a key role in building the brand. For 150 years it has managed to make its way to become one of the most popular whiskey brands in the world, yet to this day all of the whiskey is still made in the hills of little Lynchburg, Tennessee. But what the company wants to highlight in their anniversary this year is a part of their story that’s not known by many: how a slave once played a critical role in the company’s founding.
The Legendary Recipe
Before making the role of this slave known, the credit for teaching the young Jasper Newton ‘Jack’ Daniel how to distill and make whiskey has always gone to a preacher in Tennessee, the Rev. Dan Call. The story goes that Jack Daniel worked for Rev. Call, who was not just a minister but also ran a distillery as well as a general store. History tells us that while distilleries were owned by white men back in the 19th century, much of the work was actually done by African-American slaves.
These slaves brought techniques from Africa and easily became experts in distillery. It wasn’t just Rev. Dan Call who had slaves working for him, because even George Washington had a distillery in Virginia that was run by Scottish foreman and about half a dozen slaves.
The role of these slaves in brining the expertise and contributing to the development of American whiskeys was occasionally suspected and talked about but never recorded. Today, Jack Daniel’s is boldly making a statement that it is not Rev. Dan Call but his slave who actually shared the expertise.
Nearis Green was his name, and one history of Jack Daniel’s actually suggested that Rev. Call did instruct his slave, who was “the best whiskey maker that I know of,” to show Daniel the process of distilling.
Jack Daniel eventually built his own distillery in 1866, a year after slavery ended. Two of the sons of Nearis Green eventually became employed by Jack Daniels, continuing the legacy and techniques of their father.
In 1911, Jack Daniels died of blood poisoning, and it is only today that the company has officially acknowledged the critical role that Nearis Green played in its origin story.
This is a big deal because we live in a world where many parts of history have been ‘whitewashed’ and continue to be whitewashed. Slavery is also a big part of America’s past, and acknowledging the role that Nearis Green has played is actually a step in the right direction. For their part, Jack Daniel’s maintains that it was never a conscious decision to leave Green’s role out of the company’s history.
About the company’s history, Jack Daniel’s Global Brand Director Phil Epps says, “As we dug into it we realized it was something that we could be proud of.” He also says that “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.”
Jack Daniel’s in-house historian, Nelson Eddy, confirms this and recognizes that it has “taken something like the anniversary for us to start to talk about ourselves”. While it is unclear exactly what Nearis Green taught Jack, the role he plays in the origin story of Jack Daniel’s is now brought to the limelight and officially written in the history books.
Jack Daniel’s Today
As Jack Daniel’s embraces history and recognizes the role slaves played in America’s whiskey making industry, it only adds yet another layer to its provocative, rich, and always interesting story.
Whatever the story of its origin may be, Jack Daniel’s today has reached global stardom. It is practically the oldest distillery in the United States, registered with the federal government as early as 1866. This gives Jack Daniel’s one and a half century of stories and expertise.
To celebrate its glorious 150 years, Jack Daniel’s has also come up with a special limited edition anniversary whiskey. It is described in its website as follows:
“True to the process established by its founder, the grain bill for the anniversary whiskey is the same as the iconic Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7, consisting of 80 percent corn, 12 percent barley and 8 percent rye. Each drop was then mellowed through ten feet of sugar maple charcoal, before going into specially-crafted new American oak barrels, adhering to the guidelines required of a Tennessee whiskey.”