Behind the Bar Bar Talk

Uncle Nearest’s Victoria Butler on Her Ascent to Master Blender

As the first African American female master blender, she’s breaking barriers and racking up awards.

Victoria Butler
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Eric Ryan Anderson

Roughly two years ago, Victoria Eady Butler was managing a team of Department of Justice criminal intelligence analysts at Regional Organized Crime Information Center in Nashville. This year, Whisky Magazine named her Master Blender of 2021, the most recent and sparkling distinction among an avalanche of awards she has earned for her Tennessee whiskeys in the last 18 months. 

Her path to that acclaim for Uncle Nearest whiskey, the fastest-growing independent American whiskey ever, has been sudden and stunning. The same goes for the company itself, whose small family of spirits has proven as successful as its backstory is compelling, which is saying something. And Butler is inseparable from both the spirits and story. 

Her great-great-grandfather was Nathan “Nearest” Green, the enslaved and later emancipated man who taught an orphan named Jack Daniel the craft of distilling but was overlooked by history ever since. Today, Butler and her brand honor him with its flagship spirits: 1820, a single-barrel whiskey named for the year Nearest was likely born (records are limited and not a single photo of him exists); 1856, the distillery’s premier aged whiskey, named after the year Green mastered what’s called the Lincoln County process of filtering; and 1884, believed to be the last year Green put whiskey in a barrel. 

Uncle Nearest founder and owner Fawn Weaver initially came to Lynchburg, Tennessee, to research Green’s story for a book she was imagining. She started interviewing Green’s family members, including some who have long worked at Jack Daniel’s, and ultimately turned her entrepreneurial energy away from a book and toward a whiskey brand that would better uplift Green’s descendents. Weaver’s way of describing how the resulting whiskeys combine historic heritage and drinkability: “Lightning in a bottle.”

But as momentous, and borderline miraculous, as Uncle Nearest’s trajectory has been, where Weaver, Butler and their team are taking Uncle Nearest in the future, along with new generations of distillers, will ultimately be of greater importance. 

You have an amazing family history in whiskey, but the route you took to spirits wasn’t direct. What has it been like? 

It has been a beautiful ride. I’ve always enjoyed whiskey but never thought blending was in my future or considered doing it. When I was a young girl, I wanted to work in law enforcement and maybe be a judge one day. I was fortunate to have a good career where I felt like I was making a difference in my community. When Fawn came along, it was perfect timing, because I had just retired.

In 2019, when we met to make the first batch of 1884, I was unsure of myself because I hadn’t done anything like that. After I created the first, it built confidence for the second. Fawn had all the confidence in the world in me, but it took me some time to come to accept I’m good at this. 

What gave Weaver so much confidence in someone so new to blending? You had committed yourself to studying at Moonshine University in Louisville, studied to become a certified bourbon steward, read a bunch of books and took sensory tests, but it was still a leap of faith.

Maybe it was my willingness to learn and my energy and desire to do well. I started researching on my own, learning all I could about the spirits industry. I became a student of the craft—and I still am, and I hope I will always be. The awards are wonderful, but you can’t become complacent. I want to continue to grow and learn. I think Fawn was impressed with that, especially given my age. I’m not a kid. She unleashed a passion. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. 

It helped that our awards resulted from blind taste tests. Our story is powerful and even emotional, but the judges don’t hear the story when they’re tasting. That told me, “I know what I’m doing here.” So I’m confident in my skills and my palate. I believe it's in my blood. 

People ask me, “How do you go about becoming a master blender?” I can’t really say, because my route was different than most. Many are apprentices for a long time. In May 2019, we met to blend, the whiskey hit the market in July [winning awards and selling out immediately], and by Nov. 1, I was elevated to master blender. 

That’s why I truly believe whiskey is in my blood, that what I'm doing just passed down from Nearest. I can’t explain it any other way. It’s unheard of, what we’ve done—winning awards for having the best whiskey, all the firsts we’ve accomplished. And we’re just getting started. Take the distillery: We’re still building out our $50 million facility, and it’s absolutely beautiful.

What tools from your previous career translate to spirits?

They’re totally different entities, but I think my age and my wisdom, which kind of go hand-in-hand, are what translate. And persistence—that’s one of the things that’s essential in law enforcement. Be consistent and never give up. I think it’s part of my personality. I want to succeed. The stakes are quite a bit different here than there—now it’s our family legacy—but I still strive for excellence, and we do everything with love, honor and respect and keep our eye on the prize: that Nearest Green’s legacy is cemented. That’s the ultimate goal.

The nonprofit Nearest Green Foundation extends tuition support to direct descendents of Nearest Green. What’s most meaningful about your work directing it? And how can bartenders, distillers and drinkers across the country support and participate in it?

To empower education. Education is very important. For a descendent of Nearest Green to further their education without financial hardship is a real blessing. 

We’re not yet set up for donations, though we’ve received some. The biggest thing is to promote the whiskey because it funds the foundation. Please sell the whiskey! 

Among other things, the Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative is the umbrella for the Green School of Distilling, Leadership Acceleration Program and Business Incubation Program. Not many distilleries do that. Why are these elements important?

It started off as things Fawn really wanted to do because there were no people of color in the industry or at least not nearly enough. The desire in the beginning is that it will undergird people of color to take higher positions as distillers or members of an executive team. 

Once Fawn started doing research and talking to Motlow State Technical College, [Jack Daniel’s parent company] Brown-Forman joined in, and now it’s going quite well. We have two apprentices already on board, Byron Copeland and Tracie Franklin. 

Weaver describes your palate as being on the sweeter side, which leads to 1884 taking on notes of vanilla, butterscotch and caramel. I’ve heard her say, “Victoria is particular about what she wants, and her palate is phenomenal.” How do you cultivate your palate?

 I don’t think you cultivate it; I think it’s something that’s given. The first time I went in to blend 1884, I didn’t have anything on my mind but the finish, and I wanted the finish to be extremely pleasant because it’s a 93-proof whiskey. It has been my experience with higher-proof whiskeys that they’re almost pungent on the end and leave you with a little burn. I knew I didn’t want that. 

“Smooth” is a word used frequently in describing spirits, but people use it so much in evaluating your blends that it’s impossible to ignore.

It’s a conscious effort, whether I’m blending 10 samples or 35. The thought is always that the finish is good. We start with good juice. I discard what’s not pleasing. When people drink 1884, they’re drinking what I desire. Fortunately, it has worked out that people like what I like.

What are some challenges you confront in this industry, whether that’s challenges you’ve met, challenges you see on the horizon or challenges that never go away?

Oddly enough, I haven’t faced a lot of challenges being a part of this. I don’t know if it's because I’m part of a team that has proved itself quickly, being the most-awarded whiskey for two years running. Fawn did the groundwork before I came along; she broke the barriers. I haven’t had challenges in the industry based on race or gender. 

As far as in the future? I don’t foresee that, because my team and I put the biggest challenge on ourselves. We’re not running a race to outdo anyone. We’re not chasing dollars; we’re building history. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on something Vice President Kamala Harris said about making history for Black women: “I may be the first, but I won’t be the last.”

I feel the same way. I’m the first female African American master blender, and I know I will not be the last. When people can see what we’ve accomplished, it’s more attainable. Now that the history has been made, we can begin a new history. Especially with the Nearest and Jack Initiative, it’s a help to those who desire to be master blenders and master distillers or hold executive positions. 

How would you characterize Uncle Nearest’s role in the social justice movement?

I know our team has been very conscientious about Black Lives Matter, and we’re the only American spirit that honors an African American man, the only one owned and led by African American women and the only executive team composed of all women. I don’t know if I can put a measuring stick to that. 

But I know what we’re doing is being conscious about our community. When the pandemic first happened and the world was turned upside down, Fawn jumped in right away and started sending out personal protective equipment to the front lines, putting up billboards encouraging masks and social distance, and supplying all of our accounts with masks. We turned our visitors center into a shipping hub for sending masks and hand sanitizer. That was a daily thing. We jumped in to be our brothers’ keeper. Yes, we’re selling whiskey, but we’re very much connected to our community.

When it comes to Uncle Nearest’s evolution, what are you most proud of?

My goodness, there are so many things. I’m extremely proud of the foundation. I’m proud I’m on a team working alongside people with a passion for Uncle Nearest premium whiskey. The team is committed. 

You said something recently that stuck with me: “Nothing surprises me anymore about what we’re going to do.”

I’m not surprised anymore because I can reflect on what we’ve already done in such a short period of time. Anything we do starts at the top with Fawn Weaver. She’s very meticulous. She’s a forward thinker. Even if it appears accelerated, it has been well-planned. When it’s executed, it’s done with excellence. Going forward, what we do has to be done with excellence or we won’t do it.

What question do you wish people ask that they don’t?

Now that’s a tricky one. It’s not a question, but I do want people to know more about the initiative. It’s also important that people know that Fawn started it before the whiskey. Now, the whiskey helps fund it, but the initiative was not an afterthought; it was primary.

If your great-great-grandfather taught Jack Daniel what he was doing, who taught your great-great-grandfather?

We think, based on the information available, it was just something brought over from West Africa, where they purified water through charcoal. Nearest, in his infinite wisdom, thought, If it worked for water, it would work for whiskey. He didn’t invent the Lincoln County Process; he just perfected it with sugar maple charcoal. 

When do you feel most alive in your job?

Oh, my goodness. Before the pandemic, I traveled to meet people who had a desire to know more about Nearest Green and our whiskey. I enjoy hearing their stories and raising a glass of whiskey with our followers. I enjoy blending the whiskey as well, but what I really do miss a great deal is being out in the public with people who want to learn more about Uncle Nearest’s story.

Here’s a lightning round of quick questions: How do you know you have a real-deal Tennessee whiskey lover on your hands? 

The expression on their face.

What's a surprising detail about Uncle Nearest that you treasure?

He created the distinction of Tennessee whiskey.

What’s your favorite place in the world to enjoy a good Tennessee whiskey?

Any place with friends and family.