Nearest Green and Jack Daniel

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Photo by Jonathan Ybema on Unsplash

Today I have a guest blogger — my husband, Jeff.

My stepfather, Harvey Lawrence Colvin, was an Army veteran and retired from the St. Louis Police Department after a full 35 years on the force. My mom (divorced from my father when we, her kids, were adults) married “Larry” in 2010, and I got to know him well before he passed away in early 2018. My family — me, my wife, and two kids — made at least one trip from Denver to St. Louis every year, and sometimes twice (usually over the kids’ Spring and Fall school breaks).

One clear memory of Larry was when we would call as we made it into St. Louis after the long, long, all-day drive. Larry would answer the phone, chat a bit, and ask, “Can I make you a drink?” And, we would answer, “Yes.” After all, that was the end of our drive, and we weren’t going anywhere but to bed. Nine times out of ten, Elena would have an Amaretto sour, and I would have a whiskey sour. That whiskey sour was always made with Jack Daniel’s. Larry would join us with a little Jack on the rocks. Jack Daniel’s was his drink of choice, and he always had a bottle or two on hand. Sometimes he would stray into the territory of a Woodford Reserve or Gentleman Jack, but Jack Daniel’s was the standby.

Elena’s parents got to know Larry, and before we left on our trips to St. Louis, would send us off with a gift of Jack Daniel’s for Larry, and a liqueur for my mom. This gift-giving of booze is a well-grounded Russian tradition — don’t come empty handed.

On his 70th birthday, we sent Larry a big, ostentatious bouquet of flowers. When we called him to say Happy Birthday, we said we wanted to get him something he definitely would not get for himself, and that we knew a lot of people probably would buy him a bottle of Jack. He said, “Yes. Yes, they did. I got big ones and regular ones and … let’s see … and I think I now have enough to float a battleship!”

A fond memory of visiting Larry would be debating and arguing over politics and government policies and basketball players, and the economy, and history, and a whole variety of topics. These kitchen debates late in the evenings were interspersed with stories from the police force, corny old jokes (from both of us), and, of course, a little Jack on the rocks. Larry had strong opinions on a lot of topics, and some of these opinions rankled me, my siblings, and my step-siblings. But, over a glass of Jack, I hung in there, and gave as good as I got. After one of the first “chats,” I checked in with my mom to see if I had irritated him, and she said, “Oh, no. Not at all. Actually, he likes that. Most of his friends argue with him. That’s what they do.” I must admit, I also enjoy debating and discussing because it usually leads to greater understanding and appreciation of other people.

Today, I came across a story on the Internet, and upon delving into the story, I found myself thinking fondly of these kitchen debates over some Jack Daniel’s, and the complexity of the human experience — how we can find someone’s thoughts and opinions highly objectionable — kind of hate what they are saying — yet, we can deeply love the individual saying these things.

When I first started reading the article about how a slave was involved in creating Jack Daniel’s whiskey, I immediately thought, “Uh oh. This is not going to be good. I wonder what Larry would think of this?”

There actually were several articles on the story of Nathan “Nearest” Green and Jasper “Jack” Daniel creating one of the most famous whiskeys in the entire world (to get the full story, go to: “How Fawn Weaver rewrote the history of America’s biggest whiskey brand”, from www.TheNational.com). The story, goes like this:

A preacher in Lynchburg, “rented out” or took a slave on loan from another slave owner. The slave did some work on the preacher’s farm, but his primary job was distilling whiskey. The man’s name was Nathan Green, known to everyone as “Nearest.” It is unclear who taught Nearest to make whiskey or the distillation process, but he was excellent at his trade. The good reverend made good money from selling the whiskey that Nearest produced. Nearest oversaw the work of others, supervising the cooking of the grain, the mash, and the final charcoal distillation process. A poor boy, just shy of 10 years old, named Jasper Daniel, known as “Jack” came to work on the farm, worked hard, and eventually convinced the preacher to let him help out and learn the whiskey distillation process from Nearest.

In his teen years, Jack became the salesman and primary distributor of the product. After the Civil War, Nearest became a free man. The preacher gave up the liquor trade, and Jack decided he would open up his own distillery, with his key employee and good friend, Nearest Green. As they say, the rest is history. But that history is important. Jack Daniel and his family prospered, and his Master Distiller, Nearest Green, prospered as well. Mr. Green and his family were well-respected (as much as the society of the day would allow). Mr. Green’s sons and grandsons continued working for and with Jack, as well as Jack’s children, at the distillery.

It seems the story of Nearest Green, Master Distiller, was never hidden, but neither was the role of Nearest in the Jack Daniel’s prosperity properly celebrated. A journalist named Fawn Weaver, learned of Nearest Green, and set out to find out all she could about Nearest Green and his descendants. She researched, and phoned, and delved into archives, and finally visited Lynchburg to interview the descendants of Nearest and talk directly to the people of Lynchburg — she especially wanted to meet the older black people who lived in the town of roughly 6,000 souls. She traveled to Lynchburg, and met the elderly black men and women of the community. They told her, to her surprise, that there was very little racial strife in the town of Lynch . . . burg. It seems the black and white kids played together, families worked together, and desegregation happened in town with no protest or upheaval. After all, everyone in the town had some connection — a connection to Jack Daniel’s, who now operates two large distilling facilities in the small town.

So, when I started reading the article about a slave’s involvement in creating Jack Daniel’s, and thought, “Uh oh,” and assumed the worst. I was wrong. This wasn’t yet another story about the ruthless use, abuse, and exploitation of a black man at the hands of an arrogant and unapologetic white man — among examples that are legion in our nation’s history (where the ownership of humans was considered justified and even fought for as a right). This was the story of two men, in a situation that neither created, but where both used their skills and abilities to help one another and where both needed each other. While one clearly had an advantage in life, both men came from humble roots, and both created a business together, both prospered, and both dedicated not only their lives, but their future generations to this business. And future generations benefited from them working together side by side. It’s hard to hate someone whom you get to know, respect, and depend upon. It’s hard to consider someone who mentored you and taught you a trade as a lesser being.

My stepdad, Larry, came from humble roots, literally a dirt-poor farm boy from southeast Missouri. He, like these men, created a prosperous life for himself.

There is now a whiskey brand named “Uncle Nearest” to honor and celebrate the legacy of Nearest Green. I would have liked to share this story of Nearest Green and Jack Daniel’s collaboration with Larry. And maybe we would have discussed it over a bit of Uncle Nearest on the rocks.

Written by

Writer and storyteller, immigrant, wife, mom, knitter, collector of jokes, lover of cheap, sweet wine.

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