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How an Enslaved Man Helped Jack Daniel Develop His Famous Whiskey

Jack Daniel’s stands as one of the most iconic American brands and most popular spirits in the world. Yet while the whiskey and its eponymous founder have become dominant names in American liquor lore, the person perhaps most responsible for its success—an enslaved man named Nathan “Nearest” Green, who taught Jack Daniel the art of whiskey distillation—went unacknowledged for more than 150 years.

Researchers are discovering that the role enslaved people played in America’s early whiskey-making went beyond manual labor like gathering grain and building barrels. Distillation was notoriously laborious and tedious work, and some plantation owners—including George Washington and Andrew Jackson—used enslaved workers to run their distilleries. According to American spirit writer Fred Minnick, author of Bourbon: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of An American Whiskey, brokers at auctions of enslaved people “would notate distiller-trained slaves, many of whom previously worked on Caribbean sugarcane plantations and contributed to the distillation of sugar’s byproduct, molasses, to create rum. These skill sets earned premiums for their owners and made them attractive to buyers.” Overall, however, documentation of enslaved workers’ contributions to early American whiskey production remains sparse, as few enslavers saw fit to credit their achievements for posterity.

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