For 150 years, the story of how Jack Daniel’s whiskey came about is that a man named Dan Call taught young Jack how to run his still.
But the truth, like the truth of America, is a bit more complicated. And as is often true in America, that complication involves that most peculiar institution.
The New York Times reports that this year, for the 150th anniversary of Jack Daniel’s, the company now says Daniel didn’t learn distilling from Dan Call; he learned it from Nearis Green—one of Call’s slaves.
The Times reports that this “version” of history was never a secret, but “is one that the distillery has only recently begun to embrace.” “It’s taken something like the anniversary for us to start to talk about ourselves,” said Nelson Eddy, Jack Daniel’s in-house historian.
The Times reports that “enslaved men not only made up the bulk of the distilling labor force, but they often played crucial skilled roles in the whiskey-making process. In the same way that white cookbook authors often appropriated recipes from their black cooks, white distillery owners took credit for the whiskey.”
Jack Daniel’s says it simply wants to set the record straight. The Green story has been known to historians and locals for decades, even as the distillery officially ignored it.
“I don’t think it was ever a conscious decision” to leave Green out of the company’s story, said Phil Epps, the global brand director for Jack Daniel’s.
Even our first president relied on slaves to make his spirits. The Times reports that an exhibit on George Washington and slavery opening this fall at Mount Vernon in Virginia documents how he relied on six slaves (and two Scottish foremen) to run his rye-whiskey distillery, one of the largest on the East Coast.
“They were key to the operation in making whiskey,” said Steve Bashore, who helps run a working replica of Washington’s distillery, to the Times. “In the ledgers, the slaves are actually listed as distillers.”
The report also notes that in the late 18th century in the newly settled regions that would become Tennessee and Kentucky, many successful farmers had at least a few slaves, who tended to be closely involved with whiskey production.
Michael Twitty, a food historian, said that Green would have probably “drawn on generations of liquor-making skills: American slaves had their own traditions of alcohol production, going back to the corn beer and fruit spirits of West Africa, and many Africans made alcohol illicitly while in slavery.”
Most interestingly, the Times said, based on an interview with a whiskey historian, “the influence of enslaved African distillers may explain a mystery in the development of American whiskey. Traces of German, Scots-Irish and English distilling traditions are evident in the American style, but there’s much that can’t be traced to an earlier source—a gap that slave traditions might fill.”
Of course, because of slavery, these contributions of the enslaved have largely been erased from history and only passed down through scattered oral traditions.
“It’s extremely sad that these slave distillers will never get the credit they deserve,” said Fred Minnick, the author of Bourbon Curious: A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker. “We likely won’t ever even know their names.”
But we do know Nearis Green’s name, and we should salute him the next time we take a sip or shot of the smooth brown.
Read more at the New York Times.