Until now, the story told was that a white moonshine distiller named Dan Call had taught his young apprentice, Jasper Newton ‘Jack’ Daniel, how to run his Tennessee distillery.
But it appears that the brand is finally ready to embrace its controversial history after it revealed it was not Dan Call, but one of Call’s slaves named Nearis Green who had passed on his distilling experience to Daniel.
‘It’s taken something like the anniversary for us to start to talk about ourselves,’ Nelson Eddy, Jack Daniel’s in-house historian, told the New York Times.
According to a 1967 biography, Jack Daniel’s Legacy, Call told his slave to teach Daniel everything he knew.
‘Uncle Nearest is the best whiskey maker that I know of,’ Call is recorded as having said.
Slavery was brought to an end in 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment.
Daniel opened his own distillery a year later where he employed two of Green’s sons.
A photo taken from the time shows a man thought to be one of Green’s sons sitting alongside Daniel and his workers. The photograph is significant as typically, black employees would have been forced to stand at the back.
His inclusion may have signified that he played an important role at the Jack Daniels distillery.
Yet Nearis Green and his family were all too quick forgotten about until very recently.
Phil Epps, the global brand director for Jack Daniel’s at Brown-Forman, which has owned the distillery for 60 years, insists it was not a ‘conscious decision’ to omit the Greens from the whisky’s history.
But at a time when the distillery was trying to market Jack Daniels to the segregated south, it is also unlikely that they would have celebrated its black heritage.
Epps said they had come across the founder story while researching the origin of the whisky.
‘As we dug into it, we realized it was something that we could be proud of,’ Epps said.
Some critics have criticized the move as a cynical way to target a new market of millennials who are known for ‘digging at social issues.’ By celebrating the history now, it prevents it coming out later expectantly.
However, the brand claims it’s simply keen to set the record straight.
After decades of ignoring the Greens’ story, which was well known to local historians, Jack Daniels has accepted the history which will be featured on its distillery tour.
Slaves once make up the majority of men working in the distilling industry and records of slave sales show that their whisky making skills were highly prized.
Historians also believe that certain methods used to create American whiskies, not found in German or British traditions, may have come from ancient African techniques passed down through the generations.
But, like so much else appropriated from enslaved African Americans – from recipes to traditions, the distillery owners would take credit for their slaves’ whisky.
And with so little written about the contribution of slaves at the time, historians are left with few clues to how enslaved men and women created American whisky.
Another Jack Daniel’s tradition is the Lincoln County process, where unaged whiskey is passed through several feet of maple charcoal to purify the bourbon, leaving it with a slightly sweet flavor.
Once again, the history books credit white Tennessean Alfred Eaton with inventing the technique in 1825. But experts say it is more likely that it stemmed from slaves who would use charcoal to remove the impurities when illicitly brewing their own alcohol.