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Fawn Weaver: The author who went out for a book and came home with a distillery

Unspooling the yarn: Uncle Nearest founder Fawn Weaver  (Eric Ryan Anderson)
Unspooling the yarn: Uncle Nearest founder Fawn Weaver (Eric Ryan Anderson)

Sometimes the way a story is discovered astonishes just as much as the tale itself. There’s a good one going around in downtown Nashville, which isn’t as common as it sounds.

Downtown Nashville is all Broadway and its hangers-on, avenues one through 16. Crowds go for shops selling cowboy boots, or bars where the guitars don’t cool and the red jewel lights on Fender amps never dim. Rooftops are full to spilling with frozen margaritas and bachelorettes. It is neon, it is unreal, it is Disneyland in denim cut-offs. There is something to be said for that. But it is not always somewhere for stories that astonish.

You have to drive for those. An hour-thirty should do it, though it takes longer heading home. Start down Interstate 24 and left to US-231 and into Shelbyville, and keep on gunning. Past Sulphur Springs road, driving parallel with the Flat Creek, for which the highway is named. The houses here are white clap board and seem to shudder in the disturbed air when the Fords and GMCs gallop past. The road straightens and a sign appears, welcoming visitors to Lynchburg. It is a name that seems best not to think about.

Take the car a little into the woodlands and another white house appears, the house on Dan Call’s farm. Inside the wood is marked with distilling stamps, and newspapers a century-and-a-half old peak from behind peeling wallpaper. They passed for insulation, once.

Dan Call was a Lutheran minister. Besides the church was his farm, and besides that, he owned a local shop. Besides the shop, he distilled whisky. And besides that... well, people were busy then — if we call ‘then’ 1850, which is about the time that a seven-year-old orphan called Jasper Daniel met the minister, the pair introduced by a man called Felix Waggoner. For a long time, it was said that Call taught the boy to make whiskey. However it was, the boy certainly learnt to make the stuff: Jasper is remembered as Jack now. His name fronts something like 165 million bottles of Tennessee whiskey every year. Some feat for an orphan.

Pictured in the middle, George Green, son of Nathan “Nearest” Green, with Jack Daniel (Press handout)
Pictured in the middle, George Green, son of Nathan “Nearest” Green, with Jack Daniel (Press handout)

When Jack Daniel was alive, he wasn’t producing as much as that, but he had fame, and fame meant photographs. There’s one of him sat with his staff. He’s not the one you look at first: the one you look at first has a striped shirt and dungarees and holds his hands in a triangle, his face as mean as a dog. But along from him is a smarter man, older, more important; white hat and waistcoat, houndstooth beard, eyes narrowed like he doesn’t trust the camera. And between the two men, close by Jack, is a black man, hat cocked. The photo was taken in 1904 Tennessee. A black man and a white man sitting side-by-side was unusual then. The south has a history.

One hundred and twelve years later, the photo was printed in the New York Times, with a startling headline: “Jack Daniel’s Embraces a Hidden Ingredient: Help From a Slave”.

The piece reported that Brown-Forman, the owner of Jack Daniel’s since 1965, was making public a secret that Lynchburg locals had kept alive only through word of mouth. The secret was how Jack really learned to make whiskey: it wasn’t Call who’d taught him, but a man called Nathan "Nearest" Green, a slave owned by a local firm and hired by the minister. It was Nathan’s son George in the photograph.

“Uncle Nearest is the best whiskey maker that I know of,” Call is said to have told Jack. And to Nearest, Call gave instructions: show the boy how to make the sour mash. So he did.

A Civil War had come and gone when Jack, by now grown, bought Call’s still. He renamed it for himself, and hired Green, by now free, as his head stiller. They were fond of each other; Green was known as Uncle Nearest. And that was that, until Brown-Forman wanted the world to hear his name, and the New York Times obliged.

Fawn Weaver (Eric Ryan Anderson)
Fawn Weaver (Eric Ryan Anderson)

But the story that astonishes is not, in this instance, that one, though it is remarkable. The story really gets going the morning Fawn Weaver woke up in Singapore, read the piece in the paper, and saw that photograph.

Weaver had already had a lifetime of stories; she’d grown up with more than most. She was the daughter of Frank Wilson, the Motown man who’d written hits for Marvin Gaye, the Supremes and the Temptations, though she was born the year he left the record label to start his life over. Her husband, of 13 years by the time the Times article was printed, is Keith Weaver, the Executive Vice President at Sony Pictures. And Weaver herself had already written two books by then, one a non-fiction bestseller. She knew a yarn worth unspooling when she heard one. With Nearest Green, “I thought I had another. I thought there was a book here,” she says. “And maybe I could make a movie.”

And so a trip to the Jack Daniel’s distillery. Not just one. “It was three times I took the tour,” she explains. “And I couldn’t see Nearest. I couldn’t find him. Nothing. No mention.”

Still searching for her movie, Weaver began to look harder. Hard enough that she took a place in Lynchburg. “I put ads in every paper, every Friday, saying I was looking into these four names,” Weaver remembers . “They were Green, Waggoner, Daniel, Call. It just said — if you have anything in a basement, in an attic, just let me know.

“And one thing about the South that I love? No-one throws anything away, nothing ever,” Weaver laughs. “I’d wake up and there’d be a document just left on the wind shield, held on by the wiper. It would just be a note saying, this is the history of this farm, this is the history of this man and so on…”

If, with her sleuthing, she’d expected a slender paper trail to emerge, no such luck. Those documents left under her wipers, or sent through the post, or put into her hands by those just passing by, soon added up. And up. And up. “I ended up with over 10,000 documents and artefacts, coming in from six different states.” Hers was a house of photo albums.

Suddenly a book didn’t seem big enough; even a film couldn’t fit it all in. Weaver found herself on the phone, travelling across county lines, meeting families, making friends. The idea came not just to tell Nearest Green’s story — that was out there, in its way — but to reclaim his legacy. In 2016, Nearest may have been the world’s greatest unknown whiskey maker, but Weaver was set on changing that. It was time to make whiskey — whiskey called Uncle Nearest. She just needed a little help.

“I had spent hours on calls, I’d been all over. And I found there’s five branches of the family, essentially, and they didn’t know each other. So I brought everyone together, and pitched a big old tent up on Dan Call’s farm, where the original distillery number seven was. Across the whole thing were photos from each of the families, army records, birth certificates, death certificates, marriage certificates, all these different things.”

Weaver doesn’t mention it, but one day there should be an Uncle Charles edition of her Tennessee liquor. Charles had been in the military, and kept up with his whole family with postcards — postcards that happened to be portraits of him. “And that was the only way I could convince all these families that they were all related. They all had one,” says Weaver, half incredulous, half laughing.

One member of the family who didn’t make that night in the tent was a sceptical sort from the Green branch. A meet-up in a tent with some strange out-of-towner, some slick Los Angeles type, who her family wouldn’t shut up about? No thanks. This was Victoria Eady Butler, Nearest Green’s great-great-granddaughter, who worked down in Nashville in the Department of Justice managing a team of criminal intelligence analysts. She spent her time investigating organised crime. Who needed whiskey?

“Two of my sisters, fell in love with her right away. And my mother, she was crazy about Fawn. She was talking about this beautiful woman from California… everybody’s talking about Fawn…” says Butler with a raised brow that suggests she wasn’t yet quite ready to believe the hype. “Well, she’s quite different from anyone in Lynchburg.” She nods, and smiles like there’s something she’s thinking, but shouldn’t say.

Butler was keeping her distance. “She missed everything! You can’t convince me it wasn’t intentional!” says Weaver, with a gleeful shriek of laughter.

Victoria Eady Butler (Press handout)
Victoria Eady Butler (Press handout)

Weaver was not easily thrown off, and the pair eventually met at the graduation of Butler’s niece. Something worked; they got on. By now, Uncle Nearest was up and running, with its own distillery. And then came an idea of Weaver’s that took the new friendship and blended business into it. “Every single descendant was supposed to have their own batch of 1884,” says Weaver, referring to the signature Uncle Nearest whiskey. So she invited them all along. A marketing ploy, right? “Without question! But I wanted their signatures on there — I wanted them to feel like they were part of it.”

But something happened that Weaver hadn’t planned. “As Vi is preparing to choose the barrel, I’m with the team and we’re all saying, you know: I got you covered, you’re gonna be fine,” Weaver explains. “She’s writing her notes, she’s all timid about it, she’s asking questions — then she gets halfway through and literally starts going, that one’s out, that one’s out” — Weaver mimes Butler’s dismissive pointing — “and I don’t know how she was doing it, because she wasn’t spitting. But her notes were spot on, absolutely spot on. And I just said… ‘Vi, this is in your blood.’”

Butler picks up the thread. “When Fawn asked me to get involved, there was no hesitation,” she cackles. “Which seems foolish as hell to me now!”

But get involved she did, retiring from the police and becoming first ever female, black, master whiskey blender. To say this is unusual is an  understatement. “Coming into this space as black people in bourbon, it had never happened, especially not a black woman,” says Weaver. “Black woman, white woman or otherwise. It had never happened. It had always been a white man.”

It’s a position Butler evidently treasures, made more poignant by the fact she’s the only descendant of Nearest working with Weaver (though this may change: “Since the inception of Jack Daniels, there’s always been a Green there. My oldest sister just retired after 42 years there. She’s catching her breath, but I feel suuure Fawn will be hearing from her.”) Didn’t anyone else want to be part of the brand bearing the family name? Butler laughs again: “No! They wanna be doctors and lawyers!”

Coming into this space as black people in bourbon, it had never happened, especially not a black woman. It had always been a white man.

“I want so many Greens involved but our job is not sexy,” Weaver says. “We’re putting them all through school, so they were like: ‘let’s get this straight: we can be doctors, we can be lawyers — and you want us to come work in a distillery?! Why the hell would we do that?”

But having Butler there is not just about preserving the bloodline. Butler is good at her job, damned good: in both 2021 and 2022 was named Master Blender of the Year title by Whisky Magazine (no-one has won two years in a row before). It shows in the quality of the liquid, which itself was the most awarded American whiskey in 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022 (the brand’s trophy cabinet is extraordinary: it heaves with 550 awards and accolades picked up since 2017, when it started).

There is a reason it is the fastest-growing independent whiskey brand in American history, and one with a good range already — there’s the standard, distinct 1884, boldly American but smooth with apples and apricots and vanilla; a step-up in 1856, all caramel and chocolate and bright with something like mint; velvet in the single barrel; fire and spice in the rye.

Now, the bottles have come from Lynchberg, up the highways and over the ocean and to London — Oskar Kinberg stocks the stuff in Hide Below; the Soho House group keep it behind the bar; Acme Fire Cult pours shots out in amongst the smoke. Swift and Silverleaf and Blackleaf have it too, others will follow. So if you’re in, have one. Better make it a double — you’ve got a hell of a story to tell.

For more information, visit unclenearest.com