Hidden Black legacy in America’s spirit industry

Only in the past decade have Black Americans, for the first time, even become distillery owners. These folks include Fawn Weaver, who runs the first Black woman-owned distillery. She named it after Nearest Green, an enslaved man who, in 2016, was finally acknowledged by the company that owns Jack Daniels as the one who actually taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey.

Many people believe our distilled industry was “a lily-white affair,” created entirely by German and Scotch-Irish settlers, but that’s far from the truth. Whiskey-making in this nation has deep roots in the Southern slave trade. Black Americans not only made up the majority of the workforce, but were integral to the creation of the industry. In fact, distiller-trained enslaved people were considered to have the most desirable skillsets, which earned auction representatives their highest premiums. African enslaved people had their own traditions of alcohol production, going back to the corn beer and fruit spirits of West Africa. Still others obtained their expertise on Caribbean sugarcane plantations. They continued to make alcohol illicitly, even while in American bondage.

Contributions from enslaved people, of course, often went unacknowledged. America has a long, sad history of ignoring Black innovations, and their contributions to the distilled industry are no different. Historical records on this industry were already pretty sparse, but the few records that exist from the 18th and 19th centuries did not normally credit non-white male contributions. Most of the records only recorded the manual labor of distilling, such as rolling barrels or gathering grains.

However, some researchers have gone beyond existing historical records to review archives, artifacts, and even interview descendants, all in pursuit of a complete picture. Part of this history includes George Washington; his distillery was the single-most profitable part of his Mount Vernon plantation.

It turns out that six enslaved people were critical to the operation of George Washington’s rye whiskey distillery, one of the largest on the East Coast. Historian Steve Bashore, who works for Mount Vernon, told a reporter taking the distillery tour for HuffPost that those six people produced all of the whiskey. Bashore said that these men were forced to work around the clock in full production to produce 30 to 40 gallons a day.

"Washington as Farmer at Mount Vernon", 1851, part of a series on George Washington by Junius Brutus Stearns. Located at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Portrait of George Washington and enslaved people in the fields at Mount Vernon, Virginia

Mount Vernon’s ledgers actually listed these men as the distillers, but this is not typical. Archaeologist Nicolas Laracuente, who has investigated slavery-era distilleries, put it bluntly for The New York Times: “The reason we’re not finding [enslaved distillers] in the archives is that they didn’t have the right to be recognized.”

Meanwhile, Elijah Craig, who some have dubbed “the Father of Bourbon,” in reality relied on 32 enslaved people who were distiller-trained and actually created his product. The earliest known sour mash recipe—the standard fermentation technique for American whiskey—was created by a woman. (Women also have a hidden history in this industry as well, but that’s another story for another day.) Catherine Spears Frye Carpenter is credited with making the recipe in 1818, and the documents for her recipe were inducted into the Kentucky Historical Society in 1995. However, it was recently discovered in her family’s property accounts that she enslaved a distiller-trained man referred to as “Little Bob.”

However, the biggest bombshell—dropped just a few years ago—that upended the entire distilling industry came from the Louisville-based Brown-Forman corporation, which owns Jack Daniel’s. In 2016, the company finally admitted to The New York Times that an enslaved person by the name of Nathan “Nearest” Green was the one who trained the legendary Jack Daniel to make his well-known whiskey. Green was enslaved by a man named Dan Call, who described Green as “the best whiskey maker that I know of.”

The story of Green was officially ignored by the distillery, even though biographies going back several decades recounted the story of Dan Call telling Green to teach Daniel everything he knew about whiskey. Not only did Green teach Jack Daniel how to run a whiskey still, Daniel hired two of Green’s sons when he opened his first distillery. Regrettably, there are many other Black Americans like Green throughout the South whose names have been lost to history.

Burnt chips soaked in whiskey. Each barrel can produce 200 bottles.
Burnt chips being soaked in whiskey barrels at the Copper Fox Distillery. 

One thing that initially set Jack Daniel’s product apart from other whiskeys was its patented process of using sugar maple charcoal for filtration. The technique, pioneered by Green, was revolutionary in how it removed organic compounds while not affecting the taste of the alcohol. Today, nearly every distillery creating Tennessee whiskey uses maple charcoal filtering, though the actual process varies by company.

That’s where Fawn Weaver comes in. Inspired by The New York Times 2016 piece, the real estate investor and author completed extensive archival research on Green, including archiving 10,000 documents and artifacts. Because of her research and advocacy, Jack Daniel’s parent company named Green as its first master distiller in 2017—ahead of Jack Daniel himself.

However, Jack Daniel’s biographer, Peter Krass, said he was surprised the company didn’t promote Nearest Green more than it did—not so much because it was the right thing to do, but because he saw it as a genius marketing tactic.

“I could see them taking it to the next level, to millennials, who dig social justice issues.”

Yeah, that’s pretty gross; but at least the contributions of enslaved people are finally being acknowledged by the industry, albeit not always for the right reasons. The sad fact is that the distilled spirit industry has a very long racist history in marketing, tied to the mythology of the Tennessee and Kentucky “whiskey trails.” For centuries, distilled spirit marketers fetishized white frontiersmen and down-to-earth moonshiners. While Black Americans were regularly used in distilled advertisements, especially in the 19th century, they were never put in a positive light. In fact, American whiskey advertising has been notoriously racist.

In the 19th century, marketing depicted Black folks as characters in minstrel shows that mocked their culture and dialect. From Prohibition to the mid-20th century, Black people were depicted as servants to white people in advertisements. There was a particularly foul marketing transformation from the 1960s through early 1980s, where Black men were shown to be “on the prowl,” using whiskey to coax Black women into sexual relations. These ads had no issues with objectifying Black women even as they painted Black men as predators.

Modern advertisements have come a long way, especially in terms of diversity, as seen in this recent ad for Jack Daniel’s. One of Nearest Green’s descendants is even shown in this ad. Yet, circling back to Krass’ point, the ad makes absolutely no mention of who the descendant of Green is. Take notice of the man with the cane at the :18 and :48 mark; his name is Claude Eady. He’s worked at Jack Daniel’s distillery his whole life and is now retired.

It would have been nice if that rich history was at least mentioned once.

 The lack of consumer marketing geared toward people of color caused one Black whiskey aficionado, Samantha Davis, a certified Executive Bourbon Steward, to create the Black Bourbon Society (BBS). This group has been very successful in raising industry awareness of the emerging trend of professionals of color who enjoy premium spirits. She has worked with most of the major brands to create programs, documentaries, and high-end events—all to promote appreciation in overlooked communities of products that simply wouldn’t have been possible without Black American contributions. Her group even teamed with Maker’s Mark to create a whiskey that was awarded Double Gold in a world spirits competition.

The work of BBS hasn’t all been fun. Davis made news when she published an open letter to the bourbon and American whiskey industry, calling out whiskey brands for not publicly speaking out against racism after the George Floyd protests. BBB also launched a non-profit consultancy firm called Diversity Distilled to promote more diversity and inclusion in the industry.

Despite the growth of this emerging market, the first licensed Black-owned distillery in the United States was only founded in 2013—not even 10 years ago. Chris Montana built Du Nord Social Spirits in south Minneapolis, opening the distillery’s cocktail room in the same neighborhood where he lived as a homeless teenager attending high school. Montana’s distillery makes vodka, gin, and whiskey, as well as apple and coffee liqueurs. Fifty percent of Du Nord’s staff are people of color.

Montana has plenty of stories of being the only person of color at distilling conventions. He would show up to bars with his product, and owners always assumed he was the delivery guy, not the distiller and founder of the company. His facility in Minneapolis was burned during the unrest after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, but Montana rebuilt from scratch, and opened a food bank next door that has since evolved into a foundation to support his community. Du Nord’s business has since exploded, and it has recently made a deal to be served on Delta flights.

Fawn Weaver, CEO of Uncle Nearest Distillery
Fawn Weaver at her distillery

Back to Weaver, who is not only a researcher and advocate for Nearest Green—she’s also gotten into the whiskey business. She purchased a 300-acre farm in Lynchburg, Tennessee, where Nearest Green taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey.

Even though she had no background in distilling, she said she felt a calling to build a distillery in order to create Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey.

“White males represent 30% of this country, and 100% of the whiskies, up until Uncle Nearest.” 

To say her venture has been successful would be an understatement: It is currently the most award-winning American whiskey, and has become the fastest-growing whiskey brand in U.S. history.

Uncle Nearest
Uncle Nearest whiskey

Weaver was already a successful businesswoman when she started Uncle Nearest, and had the capital she needed. However, it’s extremely difficult to break into the whiskey industry; there are long years required to age the product in charred oak barrels, and the start-up costs can run as high as $3 million.

This is a particularly difficult proposition for many Black Americans, who are less likely to have generational wealth and more likely to have a harder time accessing credit. Montana lamented that he had to rely on a $60K loan from a nonprofit, while white candidates with nowhere close to his qualifications were able to secure bank loans and venture capital in the millions.

Their loss. Nielsen research discovered in 2019 that Black Americans are the most likely demographic group to prefer spirits like whiskey or cognac over beer or wine. Consider that this is happening with no outreach—outside of dedicated people like Samantha Davis and her Black Bourbon Society. It makes no sense that this demographic is being ignored by major brands that are each worth over a billion dollars. Just imagine what the market would be like if they tried to convince Black Americans to enjoy their products.

Until they figure it out—and maybe they never will—Black-owned distilleries will have this market for themselves … and folks like Weaver and Montana aren’t complaining.

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