LYNCHBURG, Tenn. — Every year, about 275,000 people tour the Jack Daniel’s distillery here, and as they stroll through its brick buildings nestled in a tree-shaded hollow, they hear a story like this: Sometime in the 1850s, when Daniel was a boy, he went to work for a preacher, grocer and distiller named Dan Call. The preacher was a busy man, and when he saw promise in young Jack, he taught him how to run his whiskey still — and the rest is history.
This year is the 150th anniversary of Jack Daniel’s, and the distillery, home to one of the world’s best-selling whiskeys, is using the occasion to tell a different, more complicated tale. Daniel, the company now says, didn’t learn distilling from Dan Call, but from a man named Nearis Green — one of Call’s slaves.
This version of the story was never a secret, but it is one that the distillery has only recently begun to embrace, tentatively, in some of its tours, and in a social media and marketing campaign this summer.
“It’s taken something like the anniversary for us to start to talk about ourselves,” said Nelson Eddy, Jack Daniel’s in-house historian.
Frontier history is a gauzy and unreliable pursuit, and Nearis Green’s story — built on oral history and the thinnest of archival trails — may never be definitively proved. Still, the decision to tell it resonates far beyond this small city.
For years, the prevailing history of American whiskey has been framed as a lily-white affair, centered on German and Scots-Irish settlers who distilled their surplus grains into whiskey and sent it to far-off markets, eventually creating a $ 2.9 billion industry and a product equally beloved by Kentucky colonels and Brooklyn hipsters.
Left out of that account were men like Nearis Green. Slavery and whiskey, far from being two separate strands of Southern history, were inextricably entwined. Enslaved men not only made up the bulk of the distilling labor force, but they often played crucial skilled roles in the whiskey-making process. In the same way that white cookbook authors often appropriated recipes from their black cooks, white distillery owners took credit for the whiskey.
In deciding to talk about Green, Jack Daniel’s may be hoping to get ahead of a collision between the growing popularity of American whiskey among younger drinkers and a heightened awareness of the hidden racial politics behind America’s culinary heritage.
Credit Nathan Morgan for The New York Times
Some also see the move as a savvy marketing tactic. “When you look at the history of Jack Daniel’s, it’s gotten glossier over the years,” said Peter Krass, the author of “Blood and Whiskey: The Life and Times of Jack Daniel.” “In the 1980s, they aimed at yuppies. I could see them taking it to the next level, to millennials, who dig social justice issues.”
Jack Daniel’s says it simply wants to set the record straight. The Green story has been known to historians and locals for decades, even as the distillery officially ignored it.
According to a 1967 biography, “Jack Daniel’s Legacy,” by Ben A. Green (no relation to Nearis), Call told his slave to teach Daniel everything he knew. “Uncle Nearest is the best whiskey maker that I know of,” the book quotes Call as saying.
Slavery ended with ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, and Daniel opened his distillery a year later, employing two of Green’s sons. In a photo of Daniel and his workers taken in the late 19th century, a black man, possibly one of Green’s sons, sits at his immediate right — a sharp contrast to contemporaneous photos from other distilleries, where black employees were made to stand in the back rows.
But corporate history-keeping was a rare practice in those days, and over time memories of Green and his sons faded.
“I don’t think it was ever a conscious decision” to leave the Greens out of the company’s story, said Phil Epps, the global brand director for Jack Daniel’s at Brown-Forman, which has owned the distillery for 60 years. Still, it is unlikely that anyone in the Jim Crow South thought a whiskey marketed to whites should emphasize its black roots.
As the brand’s anniversary approached, the company started researching its various origin stories. It decided that the case for Nearis Green’s contribution was persuasive, and should be told. “As we dug into it, we realized it was something that we could be proud of,” Mr. Epps said.
A business built on slave help may not seem like a selling point, which may explain why Jack Daniel’s is taking things slowly. The Green story is an optional part of the distillery tour, left to the tour guide’s discretion, and the company is still considering whether it will flesh out the story in new displays at its visitors center.
Credit Nathan Morgan for The New York Times
However far the distillery decides to go, it is placing itself at the center of a larger issue that distillers and whiskey historians have begun to grapple with only in the last few years: the deep ties between slavery and whiskey.
“It’s about paying down the debts of pleasure that have accrued over time,” said John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi.
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