You know the lore: When Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel was a young boy living in Lynchburg, Tenn., in the 1850s, he went to work for Dan Call, a preacher and distiller. Call taught Daniel how to run the whiskey still, and Jack Daniel’s—now the world’s best-selling whiskey—was born.
But as the whiskey brand celebrates its 150th anniversary, a surprising truth about the whiskey’s origin has come to light: Daniel actually learned the ins and outs of distilling from one of Call’s slaves, a master distiller named Nearis Green.
“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.
The company has been releasing the new origin story quietly, through a social media and marketing campaign this summer. During distillery tours, it’s up to the guide’s discretion whether or not to include the story about Green.
According to Colin Spoelman’s Dead Distillers: A History of the Upstarts and Outlaws Who Made American Spirits, Green remained in Call’s employ after emancipation, serving as master distiller, and a recent story in The Guardian mentions that Call was said to have remarked: “Uncle Nearis is the best whiskey maker that I know of.” Two of Green’s sons went on to work directly for Jack Daniel when he launched his own distillery.
It’s no surprise it has taken so long for Green to gain recognition. Slavery and whiskey were both large parts of the American South’s culture, but like so many other issues, the history of distilling was whitewashed, giving no credit to the black slaves that made up a large portion of the industry.
Revealing the accurate history of the brand may also be a way for Jack Daniel’s to get ahead in a day and age where whiskey drinking is becoming more popular among young drinkers, a demographic that is also passionate about social justice issues. “When you look at the history of Jack Daniel’s, it’s gotten glossier over the years,” Peter Krass, the author of Blood and Whiskey: The Life and Times of Jack Daniel, told the Times.“I could see them taking it to the next level, to millennials, who dig social justice issues.”
Read more at The New York Times.