Finding Black History in Bourbon History
I must preface this piece by saying, I am not a historian. Well, I do have a degree in Art History, but I am not a historian on American history or American culture. I’m just a part of it. I know my own history and have a pretty strong understanding as to how Black History has played and still plays a major role in all aspects of American history and culture. With that being said, although it is has not been officially written about and poorly documented, I have no doubt that African Americans played a tremendous role in the early years of the whiskey industry in this country.
Notably respected bourbon historian and writer, Michael Veach, wrote in his African-Americans and The Bourbon Industry essay, “Researching the African-American involvement in the Bourbon industry before Prohibition is difficult at best. There are not a lot of written sources as enslaved people did not get mentioned much in business documents and if they are mentioned it is only as a slave.” He then goes on to site that The Filson Historical Society does have a few documents that state the involvement of African Americans within the industry. “One such document is a distillery ledger that records the rental of enslaved people.” It “does not mention any names nor what they were rented to do for the person renting them. However, it is known that many enslaved people were skilled coopers and distillers.”
The only factual proven documentation that the industry knows about is Nearest Green, the rented slave who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey back in the late 1800s. He was also the first African American distiller on record and is claimed to have invented the Lincoln County Process, the charcoal mellowing process that makes Tennessee Whiskey identifiably unique to the traditional bourbon making process. Although this is a fascinating story that has been rumored for decades within the industry, it wasn't until 2016 that Fawn Weaver – a writer, historian, investor, now turned CEO/Co-Founder/Visionary of Uncle Nearest Whiskey – extensively researched the story and found remarkable evidence of Green’s life and accomplishments.
It’s fascinating that it took over 150 years to uncover one story, one piece of the puzzle to showcasing that African Americans indeed did play a role in this industry. By assumption, we know that there are hundreds that played just a significant role as Nearest Green did. From cultivating the cornfields, to constructing the barrels, to distilling, to the bottling line and packaging, it is a conservative assumption to claim that in the early years, free slave labor helped the industry save on production costs that contributed to the success of the industry.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, the documentation is clear that African American workers continued to play vital roles in the growth of Bourbon Industry. After Nearest Green was emancipated, his son and his descendants worked at the Jack Daniels Distillery for decades. A similar storyline is eloquently documented in the life of newly inducted, Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame member, Freddie Johnson, who is a 3rd generation Buffalo Trace employee, and to this day the most beloved tour guide in the industry. Although there are no African Americans in high positions of power within the Bourbon Industry, it is safe to say that the industry would not be where it is today without the contributions of African Americans – working at all levels - in this industry.
So, I write all of this to make one simple point. African Americans definitely played a significant role in building the Bourbon Industry even though the evidence and the admittance by the distilleries is lacking. Even if it’s just by the overlapping time period and the fact that Kentucky was indeed a slave state, we know they were definitely involved. It is my hope that one day these stories and documents, like the story of Nearest Green, will continue to be uncovered and fully acknowledged by the industry. I want to be clear in stating that the fact that slave / free labor was used to create the American Whiskey industry; it does not make this industry a ‘bad thing’ or a racist industry. The inclusion of African American’s involvement in how America’s Native Spirit got its start does deserve honor and acknowledgment. Embracing the past, allows us to truly appreciate where we are today, and helps us consciously build a more inclusive future.
originally published on February 1, 2019 in Bourbon Zepellin