The company had intended to recognize Green’s role as master distiller last year as part of its 150th anniversary celebration, Mr. McCallum said, but decided to put off any changes amid the racially charged run-up to the 2016 election. “I thought we would be accused of making a big deal about it for commercial gain,” he said.
It didn’t help that many people misunderstood the history, assuming that Daniel had owned Green and stolen his recipe. In fact, Daniel never owned slaves and spoke openly about Green’s role as his mentor.
And so the company’s plans went back on the shelf, and might have stayed there had Fawn Weaver not come along.
The daughter of Frank Wilson, the Motown Records songwriter who co-wrote “Love Child” and “Castles in the Sand” before becoming a minister in Los Angeles, Ms. Weaver began her career as a restaurant and real estate entrepreneur. She wrote the 2014 best seller “Happy Wives Club: One Woman’s Worldwide Search for the Secrets of a Great Marriage.”
As she tells it, she was looking for a new project when she picked up that newspaper in Singapore.
“My wife often thinks and acts as a single activity,” said her husband, Keith Weaver, an executive vice president at Sony Pictures. “As her husband, I knew, ‘Here we go again.’”
What was meant to be a quick trip to Lynchburg turned into a monthslong residency, as Ms. Weaver discovered an unwritten history, hidden in forgotten archives, vacant land and the collective memory of the town’s black residents.
Through dozens of conversations, local people, many of whom worked or still work for Jack Daniel’s, told her about learning Green’s story from their parents and grandparents, holding it as fact even as the company kept silent.
“It’s something my grandmother always told us,” said Debbie Ann Eady-Staples, a descendant of Green who lives in Lynchburg and has worked for the distillery for nearly 40 years. “We knew it in our family, even if it didn’t come from the company.”
Nothing stays quiet in Lynchburg (population 6,319) for long, especially when it involves the biggest employer in town, and by late March Ms. Weaver was meeting with Mr. McCallum, the brand president, in the makeshift office she had set up in a run-down house on her newly acquired farm.
With a sampling of her estimated 10,000 documents and artifacts spread across a table between them, it quickly became obvious that Ms. Weaver, who had no previous background in whiskey history, knew more about the origins of Jack Daniel’s than the company itself. What was supposed to be a preliminary meeting turned into a six-hour conversation.
Credit Nathan Morgan for The New York Times
Mr. McCallum says he left reinvigorated, and within a few weeks he had plans in place to put Green at the center of the Jack Daniel’s story line. In a May meeting with 100 distillery employees, including several of Green’s descendants, he outlined how the company would incorporate Green into the official history, and that month the company began training its two dozen tour guides.
At one point Jack Daniel’s proposed adding a Nearest Green bottle to its “Master Distiller” series, a limited-edition run of bottles that celebrate its former master distillers, but dropped the idea over concerns from inside and outside the company about appearing to cash in on Green’s name.
Instead, Ms. Weaver has released her own whiskey, Uncle Nearest 1856, which she bought in bulk from another distillery. She is planning to produce a second, unaged spirit, made according to her specifications, which she says will mimic the style of whiskey that Green and Daniel probably made.
Jack Daniel’s seems unfazed, for now, by the use of Green’s name on someone else’s liquor. “We applaud Ms. Weaver for her efforts to achieve a similar goal with the launch of this new product,” a Brown-Forman spokesman said.
Ms. Eady-Staples, who met privately with Mr. McCallum before the big meeting, said she was proud that her employer was finally doing the right thing. “I don’t blame Brown-Forman for not acting earlier, because they didn’t know,” she said. “Once they did, they jumped on it.”
Credit Nathan Morgan for The New York Times
And although there is no known photograph of Green, the company placed a photo of Daniel seated next to an unidentified black man — he may be Green or one of his sons who also worked for the distillery — on its wall of master distillers, a sort of corporate hall of fame.
“We want to get across that Nearest Green was a mentor to Jack,” said Steve May, who runs the distillery’s visitors center and tours. “We have five different tour scripts, and each one incorporates Nearest. I worked some long days to get those ready.”
Mr. May said that so far, visitor response to the new tours spotlighting Green’s contribution has been positive. It’s not hard to see why: At a rough time for race relations in America, the relationship between Daniel and Green allows Brown-Forman to tell a positive story, while also pioneering an overdue conversation about the unacknowledged role that black people, as slaves and later as free men, played in the evolution of American whiskey.
For her part, Ms. Weaver isn’t finished with her search for Green — and may never be.
“I’ve lost track of him after 1884,” the year when Jack Daniel moved his distillery to its current location, and Green disappeared from the fledgling company’s records, she said. She is still hoping to find Green’s gravesite, and has recently been traveling to St. Louis to meet with a branch of the family there.
“I could be doing this the rest of my life,” she said. NYT > Food