The Secret 'Ingredient' In Jack Daniel’s Whiskey
Image Credit: A vintage ad for Jack Daniel's, from 1908

In June 2016, a New York Times article, headlined “Jack Daniel’s Embraces a Hidden Ingredient”, delved into a long overlooked aspect of the iconic American whiskey brand’s origins, which was then celebrating its 150th anniversary. 

The history of Jack Daniel’s has usually followed this outline: Jack, the youngest of 10 children, was born in or around Lynchburg, Tennessee, sometime in the late 1840s (his mother died due to complications from childbirth and the court records of the time were destroyed in a fire, thus making his exact date of birth difficult to ascertain). In the 1850s, the boy left home (his father had died too by then, in the Civil War, and Jack didn’t get along with his stepmother) and sought employment at the homestead of a preacher named Dan Call. Call was also a distiller, and seeing the promise in young Jack, taught him how to work his whiskey still. Later, having inherited some money from his late father’s estate, Jack established a distillery with Call as his partner. By the time of Jack’s death, on October 9, 1911 (aged 62), his eponymous whiskey was considered one of the region’s best, and its square-shaped bottle — meant to signal values such as fairness and integrity — had already become a distinctive signature. 

The next four decades would be full of highs and lows for Jack Daniel’s, the brand, which Jack had entrusted to his nephew, Lemuel Motlow. Tennessee’s temperance movement, Prohibition, World War II — these were just some of the adverse events the whiskey brand had to tide over in order to survive. However, while that part of its history was well-documented, less was known about that “hidden ingredient” the New York Times reported on. 

This “ingredient” was the role of a Black man named Nathan “Nearest” Green. Green was one of Dan Call’s slaves, and as the brand’s historians have stated, was the person who taught Jack all he needed to know about the art and craft of distilling. A biography published in 1967, titled Jack Daniel’s Legacy, quotes Call telling Jack: “Uncle Nearest is the best whiskey maker that I know of” as he entrusted the boy to Green’s tutelage.

The brand’s attempt to foreground Green’s role in the making of Jack Daniel’s came at a time when American distilling’s roots in slavery were being reckoned with. For instance, the NYT article notes that beyond contributing physical labour, slaves who worked in the distilleries would have 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”. Green would have likely passed on this knowledge to Jack.

Similarly, the passing of unaged whiskey through maple charcoal — a process aimed at removing impurities and imparting a slight sweetness to the spirit, and which Jack Daniel’s also adheres to — may have originated in slave distilling practices.

Green continued to play a prominent role in Jack Daniel’s making, long after preacher Call had bowed out due to religious reasons. He became the Jack Daniel Distillery’s head distiller, and after slavery officially ended in 1865, Jack hired two of Green’s sons in the business as well. The NYT noted that a photo of Jack and his team taken in the late 19th century shows “a Black man, possibly one of Green’s sons, (sitting) at his immediate right — a sharp contrast to contemporaneous photos from other distilleries, where Black employees were made to stand in the back rows.”