THE LEGEND & THE VISIONARY - BHM Special Edition Bourbon Zeppelin Newsletter
At Bourbon Zeppelin, we always strive to take a different kind of look at the bourbon industry. With that in mind, we’d like to welcome you to the first ever Black History Month Edition of Bourbon Zeppelin. When Steve asked me to serve as a Special Guest Editor for this issue, I was humbled by the request. You may ask, “But it’s the end of February. Why did you wait until the end of the month to release the issue?”
Well, part of that is simply due to timing and scheduling, but a bigger part is that Black History doesn’t end in February. African-Americans have been making history in this country for over 400-years, and the bourbon industry is not exempt from our influence. Our goal is to shed light on the contributions that African-Americans have made to the bourbon industry and while there haven’t been a lot of high profile African-Americans in the industry over the years, over the past few years, we have begun to learn more about the integral role that we played in the growth and maturation of the bourbon business. In our Black History Month Issue we are honored to feature two living encyclopedias of knowledge of bourbon history in Freddie Johnson and Fawn Weaver.
Freddie Johnson is a tour guide at Buffalo Trace distillery, but to refer to him as merely a tour guide is like saying that a blue whale is “big." Freddie is the heart and soul of Buffalo Trace, and his knowledge of the history of the distillery, and of bourbon in-general, is second-to-none. He is the gatekeeper of the oral history of one of the country’s oldest and most respected distilleries. Freddie and I sat down and discussed the history of African-Americans at Buffalo Trace. That history goes back more than a century, and his family history is deeply intertwined with it. A major part of this history is the beginning of one of the most popular bourbons on today’s market: Blanton’s. Read on to hear a remarkable story.
Our second feature is an interview that Samara Rivers did with Fawn Weaver, the founder and visionary behind Uncle Nearest. Fawn is like a comet shooting across the night sky, illuminating all of the earth beneath her. Although she has only been in the industry for a relatively short period of time, she has already cemented her status as a legend. She is the brilliant mind behind one of the industry’s hottest brands, and it all started with her desire to learn more about Nearest Green, the slave who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. Fawn’s vision for the future of Uncle Nearest is ambitious to say the least.
We hope you enjoy our Black History Month issue. It’s our first, but it definitely won’t be our last. In subsequent years we plan to offer more features, columns, and profiles that emphasize the significance of the contributions that African-Americans have made, and continue to make, in the bourbon industry.
After all, Black History IS bourbon history.
Special Guest Editor
The Legend, Freddie Johnson:
The Third-Generation Bourbon Employee and Kentucky Bourbon Hall-of-Famer on his Family, Blanton's Bourbon at the Future of the Bourbon Industry
Freddie Johnson is certain: not the kind of certain that comes from youthful arrogance, but rather, the kind of certain that comes from 100-plus years of knowledge and experience. You see, the knowledge is in his blood. It’s in his bones. Freddie Johnson is the most popular tour guides at the Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, but he is more of a Bourbon Sage than a tour guide, regaling visitors with stories of the first group of famous master distillers.
You know the names: Colonel Blanton, Elmer T Lee, Colonel Taylor, and others. Freddie’s presence is magnetic. He makes everyone feel like they’re family and we would all love to be a part of Freddie’s family. Both his father and grandfather worked at Buffalo Trace, making him the third-generation of Johnson to grace the distillery with his presence. I had the honor of spending a short amount of time speaking with Freddie about the history of African-Americans in the bourbon industry, and where his hopes lie for the future of our involvement. What follows below is a recounting of the conversation. Some of Freddie’s responses have been paraphrased to accommodate the space available for this article.
I started out by asking Freddie what Black History in bourbon meant to him. “It means a lot to me and my family," he said. “It’s a misconception that people of color haven’t been involved in the bourbon industry since it’s beginning. Back in the 1870s, people of all races worked alongside each other at distilleries. Blacks held all manner of positions. There is a photo here that shows a crew of distillery workers at the Taylor distillery and there are Blacks and Whites all together in the photo, and they all worked together and respected each other. People of color have contributed to the success of the bourbon business in many ways since the earliest days.”
The photo Freddie referenced: E.H. Taylor & Sons Distillery, circa 1879. (Photo courtesy of Buffalo Trace)
Freddie continued, “It is often debated about what caused the influx of settlers to Kentucky for making bourbon. Many believe that it was taxation, but another factor was the Industrial Revolution. The white oak that the distillers needed for their barrels also happened to be the material that was used by the nation’s railroads for their railroad ties. So the rail companies were buying up all of the white oak on the East Coast, which pushed the distillers further west so that they could source theirs. A lot of the White settlers were from England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, and they made whiskey in the way that it was made over there. It was the Native Americans that often shared the knowledge of how to make corn whiskey with them. The Native Americans had learned the methods of making corn whiskey from the Spanish.”
Having heard Freddie's family was instrumental in the creation of Blanton's one of Buffalo Trace's most popular whiskeys, I asked him about it. Freddie responded, “Blanton’s started with my grandfather, who met Col. Blanton on the river bank around here in this area. The Blanton family owned most of the land around here, and there were many plantations in this area. My grandfather was an offspring of a man named Col. West, who had an affair with a cook (my great-grandmother). After slavery was abolished he wanted to return to his home state of Virginia, and he wanted the cook to come with him, but she insisted that she would only go if he provided land for the son that she could know that he would be safe and secure in Kentucky. This is how my grandfather came to be on the banks of the river the day he met Col. Blanton.They struck up a friendship that would last their whole lives. Col. Blanton was very smart and ambitious. He began working at the distillery at 16, and by the time he was 35, he was the president and CEO. My grandfather was very fair-complexioned, and because of this, the Irish workers at the distillery took a liking to him and taught him how the warehouses were built. Over time, my grandfather learned the ins-and-outs and became the most knowledgeable person at the distillery about how the barrels in the warehouse matured."
Freddie continued, “So when Col. Blanton would host the big-time politicians and businessmen at his home, he would ask my grandfather to pick out the 'honey barrels' in the warehouse so that the whiskey from them could be served. The 'honey barrels' where the barrels that were located in the part of the warehouse that aged the whiskey the best. Well my father and Col. Blanton were friends for over 50-years, and after the two of them, came Elmer T. Lee and my father.”
“Col. Blanton had indirectly hired Elmer T. Lee. When Elmer tried to get work at the distillery, Col. Blanton told him that there was no room for him to work there, but the guys who ran the warehouse (Orville Schupp) took a liking to Elmer, and they had him come work with them in the warehouse. A few months later, Col. Blanton ran into Elmer in the warehouse and said, ‘I thought I told you we didn’t have any work for you here,' but Elmer just kept coming to work. Along the way Elmer and my father, Jimmy became good friends.”
“My grandfather taught my dad where to put the barrels in the warehouse to create the honey barrels. In the 1940s, Elmer T. Lee becomes the plant manager and eventually the master distiller. The bourbon industry was dead at this time, and Elmer is trying to figure out a way to help jumpstart the industry. So Elmer figured that he would create a single barrel bourbon in a similar vein to how the Scotch do single malt, thinking that it would produce a superior product. Elmer knew that my grandfather had taught my father how to get the honey barrels in the warehouse, so he asked my father to pull all of the honey barrels from the warehouse, and Elmer tasted them, and they had such a great, sweet flavor, so he took those barrels that my dad had chosen and had them bottled as Blanton’s Single Barrel."
“Now for years there were never any public word about this, then one day, when he was about 90-years-old, Elmer was receiving an award for Blanton’s and he said to the audience, ‘You all give me all the credit for this, but I never could’ve done it without Jimmy. He knew where all the honey barrels were,’ and that was the first public acknowledgement of my father’s involvement with the creation of Blanton’s. My father was completely shocked. He had told us the story, but he never talked about it publicly. In the whiskey business, it’s not polite to brag about yourself or disparage other distillers. All of the older, great master distillers are like this. So it was surprising to my dad that Elmer had recognized his contribution, but it meant a lot to him.”
After hearing the incredible story of his family's involvement in Blanton's, I inquired about the future of African-Americans in the bourbon industry. Freddie said, “That’s a very interesting question. The generation of bourbon makers coming into the bourbon industry to be distillers are coming in with degrees in chemical engineering. I see the bourbon industry as an alternative to going to work for a chemical company. The required skill sets are similar. Bourbon making is about grains, and forestry, and yeast strains, and how it all fits together. I would love to see more African-Americans joining distilleries and learning the process of whiskey-making so that they could become master distillers. It could be at one of the big distilleries or even if they start their own distilleries, but in order to do get where we have Black master distillers twenty-years from now, we need young African-Americans to be coming to work in the distilleries now. We need to get more Black students who want to come and work in the distilleries and go thru the process of learning how to become distillers. I work with Kentucky State University and I think that the talent is there in the Black community, and Buffalo Trace does do a co-op program. My hope for the future is that we will see more young Black kids choose this industry as their profession and getting to the higher levels at these distilleries.”
And with that, Freddie had to go. He had another tour scheduled where he would continue to share his love for bourbon and the history of Buffalo Trace. I still had so many questions, and I hope to one day get to sit down with Freddie and ask them, while sharing a bottle of Blanton’s with him. Because now, I know that Blanton’s is as much a part of Black History as it is bourbon history. Click on this link to hear Freddie’s entire story about the beginning of Blanton’s.
The Visionary, Fawn Weaver:
Digging up the Past While Building a Legacy
A visionary is defined as a person ‘thinking about or planning the future with imagination or wisdom’.
I can’t think of a more deserving person to be called a visionary, than Fawn Weaver. She is the CEO/Co-Founder of the most recognized and talked about, up and coming brand, Uncle Nearest Whiskey. By now, most of us in the whiskey industry have all heard the story of Uncle Nearest. He was the rented slave who taught Jack Daniels how to make Tennessee Whiskey and proclaimed ‘Godfather’ of the Lincoln Country Process. While his story has been around for decades; the whiskey world has never fully recognized Nathan Nearest Green as a major contributor to the whiskey industry until Fawn Weaver decided to dig deeper and bring his story to light.
When I first met Fawn a few years ago, I remember her talking about her inspiration for taking on this project. I loved her plan to not only have a whiskey in his name, but to also write a book and produce a movie portraying his life story. While all of that seemed extremely ambitious at the time, the one thing that impressed me the most was the amount of research that she had already done on Nearest Green’s family. Not only did she find every living descendant of Nearest Green, she also set up a scholarship for his direct descendants to attend college for free. She bought the original Dan Call Farm (where Nearest worked) and began to accumulate a room full of artifacts, documents, and original manuscripts providing evidence of his existence, the vital role he played working with Jack Daniels, and other findings proving the usage of slave labor in Tennessee during that time period.
Since then, she’s been published in several publication and has traveled the world talking about Uncle Nearest – the legendary man and the premium whiskey named in his honor. Uncle Nearest is now distributed in 47 states and 8 countries. It is apparent by its success, that since the last time we chatted, there has been tremendous growth with the brand. I recently caught up with Fawn to see if there were any updates or developments on her research and to find out what’s next for this growing brand.
Samara: What’s the latest on the research surrounding Uncle Nearest?
Fawn: I haven’t had time to do much of any researching these days. Right now, I am focused on telling the story and meeting with accounts to get the brand on the shelves.
I do however, want to spend some time digging deeper into the origins of how charcoal filtration (Lincoln County Process) made its way into Tennessee Whiskey. Based on the research of many who have come before me on this topic, is seems that there might be a possible connection to West Africa. Every aspect of the whiskey making process we can track to either the Irsh, Scottish, French, and English. But then, in the mid-1700s, all of a sudden ‘charcoal filtering’ drops out of the sky and lands in Kentucky… I think it’s safe to say that when something drops out of the sky in America prior to the mid-1800s, and no one has been properly credited, it more than likely came from a slave. In West Africa, at that time, and even today, charcoal was being used to filter water and purify food. So it makes all the sense in the world that slaves would taste their master’s whiskey here in the States and think, ‘Oh! I know how to make this taste better!’
I have no doubt charcoal filtering of whiskey originated in West Africa, where even today 92% of the wood consumed there is used for charcoal and wood fuel. But, now I have to find the time to prove it! The good news is that we are planning to distribute Uncle Nearest throughout Africa by the end of the year. So hopefully, I will have some time to not only introduce the brand, but be able to spend some time learning more about the culture and the technique.
Samara: How do you do your research?
Fawn: Everywhere! Every medium that is utilized! I was just at the archives in Lynchburg. I’ve been there at least 50 times over the past two years. But every time I go back, I go back with fresh eyes and I see something else. A new question pops up or a new lead comes in, so I keep going back to the same exact books looking deeper for new information.
Trying to track the movements of a slave when at that time in life, we would have been considered property and not people, is very very difficult. There is an elder in Lynchburg who has been keeping records forever. She’s not a direct descendant of Nearest but her family married into Nearest’s family. She’s one of the people that I go to and ask, ‘do you have any documents for this person, or records pertaining to this?’ …. And she can generally go back and find it or she’ll go down to archives and help hunt it down herself.
Samara: I remember you saying that a significant portion of the proceeds go toward putting Nearest’s direct descendants through college. How many descendants are benefiting from the Nearest Green Foundation scholarship?
Fawn: We have about 10 currently in college and we will continue to support them all the way through their college years. Even the ones who received their bachelors, we offer to pay for them to go get their Masters. There are a few family members that are getting ready to go to college. So, I estimate that we will continue to add 2-5 descendants at year to the scholarship as the children graduate. We’ve made this commitment to the family and now the younger generation is studying hard so that they can qualify for the scholarship!
Samara: Do you have any plans to bring them back into the fold of the Uncle Nearest Brand?
Fawn: Here’s the thing about whiskey. It’s unlike other businesses where you can get into and grow quickly to make a name for yourself. But in whiskey, you’re going to have to be an apprentice for at least a decade and I just can’t convince them (Green’s descendants) to do that. So if you think about Chris Fletcher who is a descendant of Jack Daniel, he was at Jack Daniels for years, and then left to work for Buffalo Trace. Jack Daniels eventually convinced him to come back to being the backup for Jeff Arnett. But, Jeff Arnett isn’t going anywhere! So, Chris is the Assistant Master Distiller, but he’s not going get a chance to even assume that roll until Jeff decides to retire! But these kids just aren’t wired that way. They aren’t interested in working towards something like that – with such a long-term commitment on training and apprenticeship. Whiskey making is also still extremely manual in its nature and they’re just not into it.
I can say that we just hired a Second-in-Command and she is a direct descendant of Nearest Green. We wont release her name yet, but she is leaving a pretty illustrious career to make sure that this is becomes a family business for not only my family, but for Nearest’s family as well.
Samara: How do you balance the time between research and building the brand?
Fawn: There is none! (laughs heartily)
There’s no balance. 95% of my time is building the brand. And the reason why that is because I am now able to hire people to assist with the research. I can’t hire people to build this brand. The ability for Nearest’s name and his Legacy to live on, rests 100% upon the reputation of this brand. So I’m out here every day promoting the brand in some way.
I had a big ‘aha’ moment went I with Nearest’s family to see Hidden Figures a few years ago… At the time I was spending a lot of time on research, writing the book and creating a film. And after seeing that movie, I knew I wanted the movie to be done that way for Nearest.. But two months later? Ask me who Taraji P Henson played? I couldn’t remember her name!
So you have a whole movie who’s soul purpose was to bring forth the history of a person I couldn’t remember the name of right now… That’s what changed my focus from book/movie (although those will still get done), to understanding that a book and movie is not going to put Nearest’s name in the record books for all time. Only building a whiskey brand in his name that will still be here 200 years from now will do that.
Samara: So, it sounds like the vision wasn’t big enough?
Fawn: What I realized, is that entertainment moves away the story away from it being history , it now makes it temporary entertainment…
My time used to be spent about 50/50 on research and brand development. But it completely shifted after that movie. Yes, will do the movie, yes we’ll do the book, but the only way to cement Nearest’s legacy beyond this current generation is to build the brand. So that’s my main focus these days.
Samara: You are the CEO/Co-Founder of the Uncle Nearest. Do you see yourself as a pioneer? Do you see yourself as someone who has shattered the glass for both women and African Americans in this industry? Do you embrace all of the other titles that come along with being ‘the first’?
Fawn: I pound the pavement all day, everyday for this brand. I honestly don’t care about a title. And I don’t care about shattering anything! That is something that other people need as an identifier but I don’t need it. If I had it my way, I wouldn’t be on TV or in magazines. If I had it my way, this story would be 100% about Nearest and I wouldn’t be anywhere in it. But I understand that I have to have the title to be taken seriously in this industry so, I have to use it.
But I’ve honestly never seen a glass ceiling to shatter. That’s just not how I’m wired. Anything I decide to do, I will do. I don’t care what industry am in; it doesn’t matter because I’m a woman, doesn’t matter that I’m African American. I’m going to do it, because that’s what I want to do! I use the title CEO for clarity because people I’m working with want to know. But I’m out here right along with my staff in New York; I just came back from Minneapolis out in the snow having meetings with companies last week. I’m out here every day promoting Uncle Nearest’s story and the whiskey. All day, every day, this is my life. The last thing I think about is my title.
And that’s the Fawn I know and have gained a tremendous amount of respect for over the past year and a half. Instead of claiming to be ‘the first’ or heralding a title that means nothing to her, she is still in this business with vision, passion and purpose. Fawn is only interested in telling the story accurately, giving Nearest Green his deserved honor and making sure his descendants have the opportunity to push the legacy forward – no matter how long it takes. She is a visionary so bold and brazen, that she’s not worried about 2019. She’s focused on a much larger picture -- having Uncle Nathan Nearest Green’s legacy cemented in history for his great grandchildren’s great grandchildren to love and honor. Knowing Fawn, how I know Fawn; I have no doubt that she will easily accomplish this and will be onto something even more bigger and grander than we could have ever imagined…