Changing the Narrative: Fawn Weaver & Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey
It takes hard work and dedication to break the glass ceiling in any occupation, especially the spirits industry. Fawn Weaver has used passion and an iron will to change the narrative by breaking racial and gender barriers. She is CEO and founder of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey. An article she read in the New York Times changed her life. Weaver decided to take things into her own hands in order to set a new standard for Black women in the spirits industry, while also updating American whiskey. This is the story behind Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey and how Weaver is updating history, one bottle at a time.
ABC: Where did you find the inspiration to start a career in the spirits industry?
Fawn Weaver: My inspiration was in cementing the legacy of Nearest Green, the first known African American master distiller. Initially, my focus was on doing that through a book and a movie, but through a series of different events, it became clear that entertainment was a fleeting way to share the story of a legend. Future generations would unlikely remember a movie from the 21st century, but the reason we all know who Jack Daniel and Jim Beam were, is because we’re still sipping on their whiskey and seeing their names regularly.
How did The New York Times article “Jack Daniel’s Embraces a Hidden Ingredient: Help from a Slave” impact you?
It flipped my life upside down. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, read the article while on a business trip in Singapore and within four months of the article coming out, I was in Lynchburg, Tennessee, doing research on this remarkable story. That led to my husband and I purchasing the 313-acre farm where Jack Daniel grew up, where the original Distillery No. 7 once stood and where its master distiller, Nearest Green, taught a young Jack.
What is the meaning and story behind the name “Uncle Nearest?”
We don’t know. It’s what everyone in Lynchburg called Nearest, from his family to the entire town. Ironically, Jasper Newton, who we know as Jack Daniel, was known around town as Uncle Jack. What we know is Nearest’s legal name was Nathan Green. However, no one used that name, including his children and grandchildren. His legal documents, from marriage and birth certificate to death certificate, all identify him by his nickname, Nearest. It was common for formerly enslaved people to choose to be called by a nickname and forego the name given to them by their masters. In Middle Tennessee, where Nearest lived and worked as a master distiller for at least a couple decades, the largest slave trader (trading more than 1,000 enslaved people per year, according to his tax records) was a man by the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Bedford Forrest was a prominent Confederate Army general who joined the Ku Klux Klan in 1867, two years after its founding in Pulaski, Tennessee, and was elected its first Grand Wizard. He was quite known in the area of Lynchburg, even having recruited some of the men here to join his Forrest Escorts calvary. I wouldn’t blame Nearest for not wanting to share that man’s name.
What does it mean to you finding success as a Black-owned business in the spirits industry?
Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey is the most successful Black-owned and founded spirit brand in U.S. history, which makes me the most successful founder and owner of a spirit brand of African American descent. That is absolutely astounding to me. It is why I am so focused on helping other Black-owned spirit brands. We’ve figured out a formula that works, not just for marketing and selling to African Americans, but to building a coalition of buyers that includes every age bracket (over 21, of course), race and background. We are dedicated to sharing that with all those who come after us, to make their path to success a little bit smoother.
What does it mean to you being a successful Black female in the industry?
Being a successful Black female entrepreneur in any industry is an enormous feat. There are less of us, outside of sports and entertainment, than one might think.
How do you feel your past experiences are represented in your product?
I came to whiskey having had a stellar Kentucky bourbon. I remember the moment I took my first sip and fell in love. I wanted to recreate that with every sip a consumer takes with Uncle Nearest. And based on our awards, especially the blind taste ones, I believe we’ve achieved that.
What has it meant for you honoring a “forgotten history” and being the most awarded American whiskey or bourbon of 2019 & 2020?
Being the most awarded American whiskey, which includes bourbon, two years in a row…in an incredibly crowded field of remarkable whiskeys, is an honor no matter the history. But in our case, we were committed to doing everything with the spirit of honoring Nearest Green’s legacy of excellence, so achieving that means we did what we set out to do.
What sets your spirit apart from other brands?
We built our brand on a knack for sourcing the best of Tennessee whiskeys and bourbons, still being made the Nearest Green way. This means that traditionally distilled whiskey goes through a sugar maple charcoal filtration, prior to entering the barrel, at a low barrel to age for no less than 6 winters. The majority of our whiskey is aged between 7 and 15 years (we’ve got some 16-year-old blended into some of our batches, but we generally release the whiskey before they’ve aged beyond 15 years). Our whiskey is made using a non-temperature-controlled aging process and a unique post-aging double filtration method.
Can you provide personal tasting notes of Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Whiskey and Uncle Nearest 1884 Small Batch Whiskey?
The 1884 Small Batch starts out with aromatics of honey and stone fruit, balanced on the palate with toasted wood notes, cinnamon, brown sugar and a slight herbaceousness. It has an elegant, medium weight and silky mouthfeel.
Our 1856 Premium Aged Whiskey offers welcoming aromas of vanilla, corn, nutmeg and black pepper. On the palate it is bold, yet smooth with notes of molasses, ginger and baking spices, balanced with subtle fruit notes, caramel, and a slight charcoal smokiness. It has a long, pleasant, slightly spicy finish.
How do you enjoy drinking Uncle Nearest?
I enjoy Uncle Nearest neat during the week and in a cocktail on the weekend. Every season, I tend to fall in love with a different cocktail. Right now, I am loving an Uncle Nearest penicillin (a drink traditionally made with Scotch, but I make it with Uncle Nearest 1884 and then put a little float of Uncle Nearest 1856 to add a bit of smokiness). I’m also greatly enjoying a Tennessee sidecar, which is much better than a traditional cognac sidecar. The proportions are the same, but by swapping out the cognac for Uncle Nearest 1884, it makes the drink a lot smoother. Some might say too smooth.
If you aren’t drinking Uncle Nearest, what are you drinking?
Don Julio 1942 Añejo Tequila or Equiano Rum.
Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey currently comes in three different bottles, each boasting its own delicious flavor and story. With both the 1856 Premium Aged Whiskey and the 1884 Small Batch Whiskey receiving Gold in 2020 from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, it is no wonder Weaver is proud and acclaimed for her success. Celebrate influential Black distillers, winemakers and owners who are setting new standards in the industry year-round by learning more about some other stories here.
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