Recognizing Juneteenth with Uncle Nearest 1856

UNCLE NEAREST 1856 PREMIUM WHISKEY

MASH BILL – Undisclosed

PROOF – 100

AGE – blend of 8-14 year whiskeys

DISTILLERY – Uncle Nearest, Inc. (sourced)

PRICE – $54

BUY AGAIN? – Yes

If any whiskey demonstrates how false the notion is that whiskey is a-political, Uncle Nearest 1856 does.

Whiskey has always been an undercurrent of American history, infusing itself into American life, culture, and politics in so many direct and indirect ways. Authors like Susan Cheever and Fred Minnick have written extensively and well about this, so I won’t chart this history here.

I absolutely understand why people in the whiskey community wish to make it an oasis from the weightier concerns of the world. I actually interpret this inclination as one toward inclusion—that we’ll set politics aside for a moment, and toast our unifying passion for sunlight in a glass.

However, this approach can also easily accommodate an evasion of the recognition that democracy is not based on consensus, but rather on varying and especially contradictory points of view allowed to stand side by side. Democracy thrives in debate, in difference, not in silence or any pretense of sameness. Allowing our differences to coexist affords us the opportunity to better understand ourselves while we develop, strengthen, and expand our empathy toward others.

As a theater artist, my job has everything to do with creating engaging opportunities for people to gather for a shared experience of their similarities and differences. (Though of course I don’t always succeed, that’s always the aim.) Very early in my whiskey journey, I recognized how whiskey likewise provides an opportunity for people to explore their differing tastes, and how these explorations inevitably get into our differing values, whether personal, cultural, economic, or otherwise.

In short, whiskey, like any other art, is inherently political. And the false division of that which we call “entertaining” from that which we call “meaningful” is ultimately a division designed to distract us from the undeniable truth: that we live and breathe politics every day. The daily choices we make—whether clicking the TV on or off, purchasing affordable clothing made by underpaid workers, or turning away from an act of violence we’ve witnessed—all spring from and return us to our complex political history, like water evaporating from the sea, raining down on the mountains, and wending its way back to the sea, over and over in endless variation.

Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Whiskey debuted in the summer of 2017. Uncle Nearest, Inc., which owns the brand, is an all minority-led business, producing a gradually expanding range of whiskeys using the Lincoln County Process, whereby whiskey is filtered of its impurities through a layer of sugar maple charcoal. According to the Uncle Nearest website, “This process has been confirmed to have been brought to Tennessee by enslaved people and taught by Nearest Green to the most famous Tennessee Whiskey maker of all time,” that being Jack Daniel.

It was 1856 and Jack Daniel was just a small boy when he was introduced to “Uncle Nearest” by the the latter’s then owner, the preacher Dan Call, who ran a whiskey business on the side. Nathan “Nearest” Green was Call’s chief distiller. Green taught the young Daniel his signature process of maple charcoal filtration, indeed brought to the U.S. by West African slaves who in their homeland had used the process to purify drinking water.

Ten years later Daniel had come of age. He forged ahead in the whiskey business himself, opening a distillery under his own name and hiring the recently freed Green as his head distiller.

Fawn Weaver, the founder and CEO of Uncle Nearest, Inc., is among the few female distillery owners, even fewer of which are also African American. In a 2019 Business Insider podcast, Weaver admits that, as an African American from Los Angeles, California, the prospect of moving to a southern town called “Lynchburg” was daunting. But her fascination with Nathan Green overwhelmed any trepidation. That fascination quickly became a mission, and it all started with a photograph.

In this 1904 photo of Jack Daniel Distillery workers, seated next to Daniel himself is an African American man. This is notably uncustomary for photos of the time. Any African Americans, if included in such a photo at all, would typically have been positioned standing toward the back and sides. Why would Jack Daniel—in the early 1900s American South of all times and places—share the central position of his company photo with an African American?

Turns out that man was George Green, the son of Nathan Green, following in his father’s footsteps. A picture saying a thousand words, Green’s central position concisely expresses Daniel’s recognition and respect for his right hand man and former mentor.

Descendants of Nathan Green have worked continuously at the Jack Daniel Distillery since its establishment—seven generations in all. And although the pivotal role Nathan Green played in establishing what is arguably the single most famous whiskey on the planet is common knowledge in Lynchburg, Tennessee, it was unknown to Fawn Weaver until 2016, when the New York Times published an article about Green featuring that notable photograph. Weaver saw that photo, followed her impulses, and by 2017 had established the most fitting tribute to Green possible: a whiskey brand made in his name.

Uncle Nearest, Inc., is more than a whiskey company. It is a monument in recognition of what is arguably the single most significant cornerstone of American history—slavery—and a celebration of those who have achieved despite the enduring weight of that history. Along with its sister organization, the Nearest Green Foundation, the brand clarifies and amplifies Green’s role in the history of American whiskey. The podcast I mentioned above details Weaver’s accomplishment as both a historian and distillery founder, and Weaver herself is exceptionally eloquent in describing the importance of her company’s mission and the history that is literally poured into every bottle of whiskey it produces. I encourage you to give it a listen. But in short, thanks to Weaver, Nathan Green is now properly acknowledged—not just by local word of mouth, but officially and internationally—as America’s first African American master distiller.

Galveston, Texas, in 1865

For all these reasons, it seemed quite appropriate to feature Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Whiskey on Juneteenth, observed every year on June 19. The history of this commemorative day is itself a telling one.

June 19, 1865, was two months after the end of the Civil War, and a full two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. It took that long for news of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach much of Texas. There are stories of messengers attempting to deliver word of the Proclamation being murdered, and the information being deliberately withheld by those invested in the slave-economy. So on June 19, 1865, when a troupe of Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger finally arrived in Galveston, Texas, with news that the war had ended and the slaves were now free, there was an explosion of both shock and celebration.

The recent murder of George Floyd by police, and all that has happened since as a result, is yet another reminder that this history has remained perpetually in process. Toasting Juneteenth with a glass of Uncle Nearest 1856 is a very small gesture, and I will not make it into more than that. There are much more effective actions to be taken toward racial justice, for which a list of resources is provided down below.

But having reflected a bit on its history and significance, I would indeed now like to take a moment to contemplate this whiskey as it was meant to be contemplated. Here first are some notes in brief, taken a day after uncorking and just a couple pours into the bottle:

COLOR – a nice, clear sunset burnt orange, with flecks of both yellow and rust

NOSE – bright cinnamons, smooth sandalwood, sweet baking spices, warm melted butter and brown sugar, sweet vanilla-caramel

TASTE – same notes as the nose, with a texture at once smooth and granular, and everything darkening on swallowing

FINISH – carries on from the darkening at the end of the palate, with the sandalwood and caramel now most prominent, some oak showing itself, all dusted by those signature Tennessee spices

OVERALL – a distinctively Tennessee whiskey, easy to drink and easy to like.

Perhaps too easy! I wish this pour offered more curveballs. But curveballs are pretty clearly not the aim, and I can’t fault a whiskey for not achieving what it doesn’t intend to achieve. Uncle Nearest 1856 is a legit crowd pleaser, with enough complexity between its spice and sweet aspects to elevate it well above the average notion of “crowd pleaser.”

And to be clear, I do not use “crowd pleaser” here as a pejorative. Quite the opposite. For something that tastes so widely accessible, Uncle Nearest 1856 offers great texture and variance in its flavor profile—all of it so well integrated as to achieve one joint impact.

My guess is that age is a key contributor to this achievement. The youngest whiskey in the mix is 8 years old, with the overall blend ranging up to 14 years. I’m impressed that Uncle Nearest’s baseline offering features such a well-aged blend. That’s classy. And it makes a difference. The wood aspects are prominent, more sandalwood than oak in my perception. The oak slips in only at the finish.

Those savory wood notes are balanced with a combination of sweet and spice that tastes quintessentially Tennessee. This I must attribute to that Lincoln County Process of filtration. Upon nosing the glass, my senses took me straight back to some George Dickel Hand Selected single barrel bottlings I’ve enjoyed. I happened to have one on hand that I’d been sitting on for three years. So I cracked it!

GEORGE DICKEL HAND SELECTED BARREL
O4F29 L56-2-13 selected by Healthy Spirits (2017)

MASH BILL – 84% corn, 8% rye, 8% malted barley

PROOF – 103

AGE – 12 years, 10 months

DISTILLERY – George Dickel

PRICE – $65

I’d picked up a bottle of this single barrel back in 2017 and loved it, so I bunkered a second. It’s squatty bottle fit neatly under a wee ledge in the corner of my pantry, and there it sat virtually forgotten for three years. I pushed aside the other bottles and blew the dust off it. Uncle Nearest sources from more than one distillery in Tennessee. But George Dickel must certainly be among them.

Dickel has gotten a bit of a bad rap lately among whiskey fanatics, since a number of secondary bottlers (e.g. Smooth Ambler and Doc Swinson’s) have been churning out sourced 13-year releases of Tennessee whiskey, all conspicuously featuring Dickel’s famous mash bill. The coincidence of a notable number of 13-year Tennessee whiskey releases in the same season set off some cynicism. And then, to make matters even more prone to cynicism, Dickel went and put out its own 13-year Bottled in Bond release.

This nearly 13-year store pick preceded that phenomenon by two years. Here are some notes in brief, taken a day after uncorking and just a couple pours into the bottle:

COLOR – clear burnt orange, notably darker than the Uncle Nearest 1856

NOSE – those sparkly cinnamons and baking spices up front, thick sandalwood and oak, notably creamy caramel

TASTE – rich, creamy, the cinnamon baking spices and caramel standing side by side, a brightening on swallowing

FINISH – caramel, vanilla taffy, those Tennessee whiskey baking spices, the creaminess lingering and lingering…

OVERALL – a laid back, calming, rich and easy whiskey

Definitely an interesting comparison. Both are equally approachable, similar in age, proof, and flavor profile. Both share a well-integrated quality, the spice/sweet mix leading the way from nose to finish with the other flavor aspects coming along for the ride.

As for differences, without being particularly more complex, the George Dickel does evoke a distinctly different feeling. There’s something darker, more contemplative and reflective about it. Whereas the Uncle Nearest 1856 is sitting forward, ready for an engaged chat peppered with hearty laughs. I’d serve Uncle Nearest 1856 at the start of the party and throughout. I’d break out this George Dickel toward the end, when a few stragglers have stayed—everyone comfortable and relaxed, settling in for some late night conversation.

Given the consistency of the Uncle Nearest 1856, I wanted to experience the impact of time on it. I let it sit for another week and then tried it again, taking new notes before looking back at my previous notes:

NOSE – that floral Tennessee spiciness now a bit richer and rounder than I remember, the caramel a bit stronger, some lemon zest and nice dusty oak

TASTE – bright, oaky, both soft and spicy, with the cinnamony baking spices and soft caramels, some oak tannins settling in on swallowing

FINISH – oaky with a faint tannic edge, behind that the baking spices, and way in the distance that sweet caramel

OVERALL – now a bit more settled in, still easy to drink and easy to like.

Now looking back on my notes from last week, it would seem the overall experience one week later is less complex. That may or may not be the case with more time and sipping. There is a definite shift toward the flavors feeling somehow more grounded. But I also picked up on fewer flavors.

Now dipping my nose back into today’s pour while looking at last week’s notes, I can pick out what I’d called “sandalwood” then. But now the woodiness is definitely leaning more toward oak. The butter and brown sugar are harder to pull out. I really have to work for it. But it’s down in there.

On the taste, the experience today is parallel to last week in that what’s happening in the nose is carrying through on the taste, and with the same smooth/granular texture as previously.

Heading into the finish, I’m noticing the brightening/darkening aspects of last week aren’t so notable now. And the oak that was just sprouting last week is now more fully present.

And overall it’s still easy, likable, interesting without demanding attention, fun without being frivolous. A good sipper. Likely a good mixer too. In any case, a really good Tennessee whiskey. I still don’t feel any need to decide between this and that George Dickel single barrel. They each offer useful and enjoyable variations on the Tennessee whiskey experience.

And of course what also distinguishes Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Whiskey is its story. When I sip it, I think about that story. I think about Fawn Weaver’s achievement in correcting the history books. I think about the incredibly difficult moment our country is going through, and the opportunity we have to push ourselves to rise up closer to this nation’s promise.

And people say it’s only whiskey.

Cheers!

Resources Toward Racial Justice

This short list constitutes a mere handful of starting places among the many available. If you don’t find something here that resonates for you personally, I encourage you to actively seek out other sources. The internet is a vast sea in this regard.

Anti-Racism Resources – an online document with extensive recommendations for key articles, books, podcasts, videos, films, and other resources for White people who wish to deepen their anti-racism work.

Change.org – searchable resource to identify current petitions demanding action in relation to known and lesser-publicized cases related to racism and other issues.

NAACP – civil rights organization working since 1909 to ensure a society in which all individuals have equal rights without discrimination based on race.

Nearest Green Foundation – amplifying untold stories.

Slavery By Another Name – a PBS documentary, based on the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Douglas Blackmon, detailing how the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in word but not in deed.

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