If it wasn’t for Nathan “Nearest” Green, what we slow sip in a dram of Tennessee whiskey would be totally different today. The “head stiller” (a title which would now be “master distiller”) perfected the Lincoln County Process, a charcoal filtration method that would come to define the output of his mentee — Jack Daniel. Nearly lost to history, Green’s legacy has been revived by Fawn Weaver, CEO and Founder of Uncle Nearest Whiskey, and master blender (and great-great-granddaughter of Green), Victoria Eady Butler.
Together, Weaver and Butler also provide space for Black voices — and black female voices — to enter the whiskey conversation. As Butler puts it, “Our mission is much greater than just people enjoying our fabulous whiskey. Our desire as a brand is not the whiskey necessarily — it’s cementing Nearest Green’s name in history so that hundreds of years from now it will never be forgotten.”
Butler’s initial appreciation for whiskey came with a bottle of Maker’s Mark 46 Bourbon. At the time, she worked as an analytical manager for the government, before briefly retiring and immediately being approached by Weaver to work at Uncle Nearest. What started as an administrative role soon transitioned into the master blender after Butler successfully curated a batch of whiskey for the award-winning startup.
“Whiskey is truly in my bloodline,” she says. “It’s who I am now. It’s what I love to do. It’s my passion. So, looking back at my great-great-grandfather and what he did — I’m continuing to do much the same.”
We chatted with Butler about her journey from spirits industry outsider to master blender, her famous whiskey heritage, and why now is a better time than ever to launch the Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative — focused on creating opportunities for Black people and other marginalized groups in the business.
You worked as the analytical manager at the Regional Organized Crime Info Center in Nashville for more than 20 years. At what point did you decide to take a step into the whiskey industry?
I was thinking about retiring. Fawn Weaver, our CEO and Founder of the distillery, and I talked. She knew that I was considering retirement. It just kind of unfolded. I retired from one job and started the next in days.
How challenging was that learning curve going from being this analytical manager to being head blender?
Oddly enough, it wasn’t huge. When I left the government, I left that thought process behind me. I was fortunate to have a career that I really enjoyed for all those years, but I was ready to retire. So when I came on with the distillery, I came on as the director of administration — not knowing that distilling would be down the road. I didn’t know that when I first came aboard.
Before Fawn even established the distillery, she had put in place a foundation, the Nearest Green Foundation, and that foundation affords any descendant of Nearest Green to go to college on a full-ride scholarship — tuition and books. So I knew I’d be overseeing our foundation. Then Fawn approached me to be the first descendant of Nearest Green to curate the 1884 bottle. That bottle was really to pay homage to the family in regard to having more family involvement. The thought process was to have a descendant to curate each batch of the 1884 that we put out on the market. My first bottle hit the market in July of last year. It was so well-received by the public that I curated the next batch. We won several awards and it was just elevated right up there with our ’56. People were liking it as much as our flagship 1856 that we launched the brand with.
The learning curve wasn’t a stretch to learn and the reason why is because I had a lot of support from team members and I started researching myself, then realized after that first batch that I’m good at it. It was a natural process.
I’m always so fascinated when I hear of someone becoming a head distiller or blender coming from a completely different field. I love how humble you are about receiving advice from team members about how to blend or distill, along with research. That says a lot about your character. What have you come to appreciate even more about this unique heritage you have since operating as the head blender?
What really resonates the most is what Nearest Green did more than 160 years ago is still relevant today. Growing up and knowing what he did in regard to his contribution to Jack Daniel, you know that was just something I always knew and didn’t put a lot of emphasis on that realizing that he was once a slave man. Our people, slaves, did not get credit for anything. I accepted that. I’m realizing now as an adult female that what he gave to the spirits industry and perfected all those years ago is still relevant today. Tennessee whiskey cannot be labeled with “Tennessee whiskey” without it going through the charcoal mellowing process that my great-great-grandfather perfected.
That’s a big deal to know what he did then is still relevant in 2020. It lives on.
That’s amazing. That key feature of Tennessee whiskey coming from your great-great-grandfather speaks volumes. On a side note, I’m looking forward to the outcome of the Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative.
How exciting is that!
I have an idea of the inner workings of the effort, but from your perspective, why do you think now is the right time for this initiative to be launched?
Well, given the state of our world today with so much going on in regard to Black Lives Matters – which the brand and I definitely support – seeing two companies come together, one that is led by a strong Black female and one that is still basically run by a team of white men, to see us come together to form an initiative in the honor of a once enslaved man, there is no better time to do that than now. This was the brainchild of Fawn and she’s been thinking of it for a while and had been working with the folks at Motlow State Community College to get it rolling in regard to the School of Distillation. So I think getting Jack Daniel’s involved with it is an awesome thing to happen. There’s no better time than now.
To your point, race relations right now around the globe, particularly in the States, are not too good.
And here we are in Tennessee, in the South, so there’s no better time than now. It also furthers the relationship that Jack and Nearest shared. Those two men were 28 years apart in age, one was a slave when they met, but they fostered a friendship that was unheard of. Now for that too to kind of live on, I think that’s a beautiful thing.
We love Uncle Nearest Whiskey, what are some of your recommendations outside of the brand?
I still enjoy Maker’s Mark 46. I like Weller. Fawn introduced me to E.H. Taylor, so I like that. I don’t venture out a whole lot. I have tasted a whole lot of different whiskeys since I’ve been with the distillery in the last year and a half, but those are the ones I really enjoy outside of Uncle Nearest. To be honest, there’s only been a few times since I’ve been with Uncle Nearest that I’ve had a full glass of something.
Understandable, considering you’re around whiskey all the time. What advice would you give an outsider of the spirits industry that wants in?
A lot of people, especially Black women, their hesitation is not knowing enough. If that is something you really have an interest in and a passion for, I think you just have to go for it. And this is why I say just go for it: Fawn Weaver didn’t know a thing about making whiskey. She was not in the industry prior to Uncle Nearest. She enjoyed a glass of whiskey, but she didn’t know anything about distilling and look at where our brand is today. You have to be committed, dedicated, eager to learn, and put everything you hold dear into it. You’ve got to surround yourself with people who are knowledgeable, patient, and in my case, those who are very kind.
My team members embraced me knowing that I was not in the spirits industry. They’ve shown me so much grace and patience. I have learned so much from them. The biggest thing is setting aside your fear of failure and going for it.