Behind the Bar Bar Talk

Uncle Nearest Founder Fawn Weaver on Removing Barriers to a More Diverse Distilling Scene

She's empowering the next generation with her Nearest Green School of Distilling and leadership acceleration program.

Fawn Weaver

Jason Myers

Much of Fawn Weaver’s work has been rewriting the past. Her whiskey brand, Uncle Nearest, commemorates Nathan “Nearest” Green, the first Black master distiller on record. It was Green who, while enslaved, taught a young man named Jack Daniel the art of making whiskey. While Green’s lessons played a pivotal role in creating Daniel’s eponymous whiskey, his name was largely written out of history. 

Weaver stumbled upon Green’s story and launched Uncle Nearest in 2017, shining a light on Green’s role in American whiskey history. Since then, the brand has experienced extraordinary 100% growth each quarter and has racked up major awards. Nearest Green’s great-great-granddaughter Victoria Eady Butler, the master blender for the brand, was awarded the title of 2021 Master Blender of the Year by Whisky Magazine.

While much of Uncle Nearest’s history is rooted in the past, Weaver is now setting her sights on reshaping the industry’s future. Uncle Nearest, in partnership with Jack Daniel's Distillery, has announced a three-prong initiative to foster diversity and advance BIPOC leadership in the American whiskey space. Step one is the soon-to-open Nearest Green School of Distilling. Step two is a leadership acceleration program that offers apprenticeships to Black industry members, giving them the opportunity to train under the country’s top distillers. The third prong is a business incubation program, in which Weaver and her team will give Black-owned spirits brands access to funding, branding, capital, marketing firms and distribution networks. 

With more than $5 million in funding earmarked for these initiatives (from both Uncle Nearest and Jack Daniel’s), these moves will create a pipeline of trained women and people of color, setting them up for leadership roles in the spirits business and kickstarting a major shift in representation in the distilling world. “If everyone else in our industry steps up in a similar manner, we will no longer need to talk about diversity initiatives; our industry will very quickly become diverse and inclusive,” says Weaver.

Here, she talks about how she’s creating an environment where underrepresented voices can thrive in order to empower the next generation of spirits industry leaders.

How did the idea for a distilling school and an advancement initiative come to life? 

Early into my time in the industry, I noticed the dearth of resumes from people of color we’d receive for each of our positions. Rarely did BIPOC apply for positions with Uncle Nearest, and the few who did didn’t meet any of the requirements listed for the job. I intentionally removed every barrier to entry in our company. No college degree was required, and neither was spirits industry experience. Still, out of every 100 resumes we’d get, if we received one from a qualified person of color, we were doing backflips. 

I began really looking at why that might be the case and realized our industry had no pipeline. There wasn’t a natural way for a person of color to come into the industry except through hospitality (mainly bartending), and what we pay at ground level isn’t nearly as much as a successful bartender could make in tips alone. That couldn’t be our only pipeline. 

Sharing this problem with the president of Motlow State College one day, I asked what he thought about helping me create the pipeline to this industry. He was on board immediately. But because no school of distilling has ever existed in America in terms of an accredited degree, we would need to write the curriculum from scratch. 

Thank goodness the most experienced person in the Tennessee whiskey business, Sherrie Moore, works for us. I went to Melvin Keebler from Jack Daniel’s and asked if they’d be willing to join us in this project, and they came on board with zero hesitation. Sherrie and Melvin wrote the curriculum, and it was approved in record time, first by the college and then by the governing body. We are well on our way to making this school a reality and inviting the first students to join the program. 

What change in the spirits business do you hope to see as a result of these advancement initiatives? 

More qualified people of color vying for the top jobs. Roughly 70% of America is a minority—women and people of color—but nearly all the BIPOC in our industry are either in the multicultural sales and marketing departments or diversity and inclusion divisions. That needs to change. At what point do we realize the minority is actually the majority and begin hiring and marketing as such?

That is what I believe these advancement initiatives are laying the foundation to build upon. I want to see marketing departments that aren’t separated by color or gender. I want to look around the room and see every single person belongs. 

What does the first round of apprenticeships and recipients of funding look like?

Every apprentice is already someone respected within the industry or within their companies who needed to have barriers removed to get to the highest levels. Our apprentices aren’t paid like an apprentice, so they are paid well. For instance, our master distiller apprentice Tracie Franklin was already quite successful as a brand ambassador. We fully matched her pay coming into the program. She actually now makes more than me, and I love that about the program! All of her travel, housing and training is fully paid for as she goes from distillery to distillery and apprentices under the top master distillers in the country. I think she may now have more certifications than any other person I know in the business, and all of that was underwritten by the program. 

What do you hope to see the first round of apprentices and brands achieve? 

There’s no other master distiller in this industry who has been able to apprentice under seven or eight top master distillers before stepping into the role themselves. It’s a truly extraordinary program, and I hope other industries begin rolling out their own versions of this. Nothing will level the playing field quite like the program we have launched alongside our friends at Jack Daniel’s. 

Every single apprentice will be one of the absolute best at what they do when they complete the program and will sit among the best in our industry, in the highest positions. That is the goal and that is the plan. 

What other diversity initiatives are in the pipeline for Uncle Nearest? 

In our Black Business Booster program, we’re working alongside more than 10 Black-owned spirit brands and sharing our resources with them, from marketing to branding to capital raising to distribution networks, media strategy, etc., to help take them from barely surviving in this industry to thriving.