Fawn Weaver is the woman who brought the story of the great whiskey maker the world never knew to light. But ever since its inception, Uncle Nearest has done more than make tasty whiskey. We spoke to her about how drinks brands can make meaningful change and ensure diversity, equity, and inclusion are more than just buzzwords.
The first master distiller of Jack Daniel’s whiskey was a man named Nathan ‘Nearest’ Green, or ‘Uncle Nearest’ as he was most fondly known. A slave emancipated after the Civil War, he was a pioneer of the Lincoln County Process, a tutor to arguably the most famous name in whiskey, and the first African-American master distiller on record in the United States. You’re probably aware of the tale thanks to the brand made in his honour by Fawn Weaver, which was founded in 2016.
Since then she has spent her time building not just a distillery, but a space where women and people of colour can be represented and championed in the drinks industry. Weaver admits, however, that she didn’t realise the scale of the problem right away. “Where I began and where I am now are two very different things. Initially, I had the ambition to cement one person’s legacy, and change a family’s life. Then I came into the industry and realised I was the only one who looked like me. Every room was white dudes in collared shirts!” she recalls.
Despite the fact that 70% of America’s population is female and/ or non-white, a very small fraction of the brands in the spirit industry are minority founded and owned. Of those few, an even smaller percentage have the support needed to achieve success. “I began doing events and women and people of colour came up to me crying. At first, I didn’t understand it. I was just there to do a whiskey tasting,” Weaver says. “But this story seemed to provide hope for the 70% of America that hasn’t seen themselves in the industry”.
Breaking into the bro club
Not that success came without struggle. Weaver has been a serial entrepreneur for over 27 years. She isn’t just the CEO and founder of Uncle Nearest, but of Grant Sidney, Inc. too, and she has been a popular TED speaker and a New York Times bestselling author. The team is Uncle Nearest is 50% female with men and women who do the same job paid the same, and is the first and only major spirit brand to have an all-female executive team. And yet, they would struggle to get through to distributors, bottle makers etc. when reaching out in the early days.
“They were all having the same problem. All of the gatekeepers were male, so on a hunch, I gathered all the information I needed and got my husband to pose as our CEO. He got through on the same day, first try. The reply would always have some reference about playing golf or drinking beer. It was a bro club”.
In fact, for the first couple of years of Uncle Nearest’s existence, Weaver was actually listed as chief historian. Her husband continued to get the calls and be the CEO for a short while, which Weaver says she was ok with because she “needed to get the work done”. Once the mould is broken others won’t have to do the same thing. Despite the early struggles to be recognised, it is encouraging is that the story of Nearest Green is now such an accepted part of America’s whiskey history since she first founded the brand.
After those early experiences, Weaver describes her objective as shifting from ensuring one legacy, to every legacy. First came the Nearest Green Foundation which provided education for every descendant of his who wanted to go college, a small but crucial correction to a family that didn’t see enough benefit from their ancestors’ remarkable contribution to whiskey.
Making a difference
Then came COVID and, in the midst of it, a renewed Black Lives Matter movement. “From the moment we lost George Floyd, we started receiving funding. A lot of brands wanted to help, but didn’t know how to. The chief branding officer of Brown-Forman was one of the first to call. Together, we set up the Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative,” Weaver says. In June 2020, each distillery contributed $2.5 million to create the Nearest Green School of Distilling, develop the Leadership Acceleration Program (LAP), and establish the Business Incubation Program (BIP).
The Nearest Green School of Distilling saw them partner with Motlow College to create the first accredited degree course in distilling in the US. The LAP, meanwhile, was Weaver’s response to finding people in the industry that were talented but didn’t have the opportunity to move into the area they wanted. The initiative has already taken on a slew of apprentices who have been shadowing at top distilleries across the country.
“When we started the LAP, we couldn’t find a single black female master distiller. In fact, no African American had been the head whiskey maker at a major distillery since Nearest Green. There were no African American master blenders, heads of operation, or head of sales for a distillery. We became an ally to people who dreamed of those roles, paying their salary and for all their qualifications,” Weaver says. “Tracie Franklin was the first person selected as an apprentice as a head distiller and now when she goes into distilleries she knows just as much, if not more, than the master distillers she’s learning under. When she graduates she will be one of the best in the business”.
Victoria Eady Butler is another example of providing an effective and brave platform. Despite being Nearest Green’s great-great-granddaughter, she worked for 31 years in the department of justice before becoming Uncle Nearest’s master blender. In doing so, she became the first female African American master blender in history. She’s now the first Black woman to win Whisky Magazine’s Icons of Whisky for ‘master blender of the year’, and in 2022 became the first person to ever win the award in consecutive years. “A lot more women and people of colour are master blenders now than before Victoria. It’s a great example of, if you give it a shot, we will excel,” says Weaver.
To create radical change, you need to be radical
The Business Incubation programme, meanwhile, focuses on providing expertise and resources to African Americans entering the spirits industry as entrepreneurs. “Most of the businesses started by people of colour in our industry have failed, so how do we help build a framework that allows people to thrive. We offer support in marketing, branding, IT, distribution networks, and other assets and opportunities to grow their spirits businesses,” Weaver explains.
Outside of the Jack Daniel’s-Uncle Nearest umbrella, there’s also the Black Business Booster Programme, which is helping about 20 black-owned brands with a similar network of resources and support, and the Uncle Nearest Venture Fund, a $50m programme dedicated to raising minority-owned brands up. Equiano Rum was the first chosen, and Sorel followed. “Uncle Nearest can’t be the only successful brand, so we’re willing to put our money where our mouth is to make sure we don’t stand on our own”.
It’s this perspective that really demonstrates what’s so remarkable about Weaver. She has been steadfast in her commitment to change, and is constantly looking inward. In our chat, she demonstrates how her company is well represented when it comes to women, African Americans, and LGBTQ+, but needs to do more by the Latin community. She’s constantly prepared to put her neck on the line and take huge risks, and truly backs what she believes.
“Whenever I’m asked how people can make a difference, I say you need to be creative and radical, because nothing has worked in the past. I was sitting with leaders in the fifth largest bank in America recently and I told them about how I wasn’t getting resumes from qualified people of colour, so we looked for them and found mostly expert bartenders who just needed a platform. They had the confidence, the culture fit, the knowledge,” Weaver explains. “In your bank, look at your tellers and see who has the potential and put them in a programme that lets some shadow the position they want to fill. Don’t just fill a diversity quota, give them the real support and a timeframe to shine”.
More than one legacy
With International Women’s Day this week, it’s a great reminder that too often these initiatives are taken as a token gesture, rather than a moment to reflect and engage. In someone like Weaver, others can see an inspirational figure who has ensured that diversity, equity, and inclusion are more than just buzzwords. It’s worth remembering that giving stories like this oxygen is the whole reason Uncle Nearest is a brand in the first place. Weaver was alerted to the story in 2016 thanks to a New York Times article by Clay Risen during Black History Month.
Now Uncle Nearest is the fastest-growing American whiskey brand in U.S. history, the best-selling African American-founded spirit brand of all time, and was the most award-winning American whiskey (including bourbon) of 2019, 2020, and 2021. When The Nearest Green Distillery opened in Shelbyville, TN in 2019, it became the only major distillery in the country to owned and operated by a black person, and now stands as a 323-acre, four-phase, $50 million ode to storytelling, history-making, and real progression. Weaver revived Green’s legacy, but as the brand excels, are his contributions still on her mind?
“Everyday. I think about him every day. Uncle Nearest is a reminder, and so is Jack Daniel’s allyship in the 19th century, about the level of excellence we need to aspire to. We’re a purpose-driven company and, I always say, we’re in the legacy-cementing business, not in the whiskey business. We’re doing that for Nearest’s legacy, but also for those who are at the beginning of their journey. That’s always been our ethos. That’s who we are”.