A history of Uncle Nearest with Kate Jerkens and Matt Neal
It’s double trouble on the blog this month, as I wasn’t joined by just one person from the awesome Uncle Nearest team, but two. I chatted with Kate Jerkens, senior vice president of global sales and marketing, as well as brand ambassador Matt Neal, covering all topics from the brand’s origin to what makes Tennessee whiskey so special.
Pour & Sip: Tell us about the history of the brand! Who was Nearest Green?
Kate Jerkens: So we refer to Uncle Nearest as ‘the godfather of Tennessee whiskey’. He was distilling whiskey on the farm on our bottles in the 1800s and he, at that time, was enslaved. And over the course of time a young boy came to that farm as a chore boy and over the course of time he earned the privilege of meeting Nearest. Dan Call, who was the preacher who owned that farm, introduced Nearest to this young boy and said ‘this is the best whiskey maker I know of’, and he said to Nearest, ‘teach this young boy everything you know’. Through that time Nearest taught him how to make whiskey, and this young boy was an incredible marketer, selling his whiskey throughout the county and to soldiers during the Civil War – he was a little guy so he figured he was safe enough, no one was going to shoot a kid! Then in about 1884 Dan Call, who owned the farm and the still, sold it to this young boy, who is now a man. This was the last year he put whiskey in a bottle. It was time to move the distillery that was still on the farm to a new place in Lynchburg, Tennessee. So Nearest retired and his story really got lost in time. The young boy became the namesake of a great American brand which is Jack Daniel’s. Nearest taught Jack the Lincoln County process, which is the method of filtering whiskey through sugar maple charcoal. It’s not something that Nearest created, but we can trace that process all the way back to Africa. It’s a big focus of what distinguishes Tennessee whiskey from Kentucky bourbon.
P&S: If you say ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ to a lot of people, they will think of that massive name. How does Uncle Nearest set itself apart from other Tennessee whiskies?
KJ: One of the unique things we do is that we do take this whiskey out of barrels, and we filter it through diatomaceous earth. And that’s a great filtration process, it really just cleans up this whiskey. Diatomaceous earth can leave behind some residue, so then the whiskey is also filtered through coconut carbon. This really is a final finishing that makes it as smooth as it is. And I know saying ‘smooth’ is very nondescript, but actually there is no other word!
Matt Neal: If you talk to our master of whiskey operations, Sherrie [Moore], everything she does is to do with premiumisation. We proof down; in hot countries you tend to lose more water than you do alcohol in the ageing process, and that sucks so much flavour out the barrels. At Uncle Nearest we are trying to lose more alcohol than we do water, so we can age for longer. It means that we’re adding as little water as we can to water down to 100 proof, so pretty much everything in that bottle has been aged.
P&S: Chat us through 1856, the expression in this month’s box!
KJ: This was our first bottle we released. 1856 is significant – this is the year that we believe Nearest perfected the Lincoln County process. It’s also around that time that young Jack came to the farm. One hundred proof was purposeful; we truly believe and know that there wasn't a lot of low-proof or low-ABV whiskey out on the market, so we wanted to bring it back to more of an authentic time. That’s really the history of this product. This is the one that’s been on the market the longest and has received the most accolades. We do have other [editions] that we have released, and hopefully another one that will be in the UK sooner rather than later.
P&S: The brand is rooted in history, so how do you keep paying homage to that history but keep moving forward as well?
KJ: A percentage of the proceeds from the whiskey go to the Nearest Green Foundation, which first and foremost is sending the descendants of Nearest Green through college. They have to maintain a grade point average level and they have check-ins with Fawn [Weaver] and Victoria [Eady Butler], who runs our foundation. The whole point is to continue a legacy of excellence, and to show Nearest’s relatives and descendants that their history was lost in time but they come from a legacy of excellence. Fawn was going to write a book about Nearest Green, a movie, they were going to put some kind of monument up within Lynchburg to honour Nearest. And when she started getting to know the relatives, she gathered everyone together one night, and someone stood up and said ‘but what about putting his name on a bottle?’
MN: I think another way of honouring him – and it was a very fortuitous way that we've managed to honour him – is that our master blender, Victoria Butler, is actually a living relative of Nearest Green.
KJ: She retired from her original job, came to work for us and then within months of choosing these batches we've won Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition! And, as she says, whiskey truly is in her blood! It’s so amazing to have his great-great-granddaughter on our side. Also, as a side note, she’s one of the best human beings I know! And I do think it’s important that the distillery is also his legacy and that’s how we’re really honouring him as well. To have his name on this distillery is a huge deal. It’s somewhere people will be able to visit for years and years, and there will be pieces at this distillery that will really celebrate his contribution and other African-Americans’ contribution to the whiskey industry.
P&S: We want to know about you! How did you get here?
KJ: My background is hospitality. I spent about 15 years in the hotel world. I really love, love the hospitality industry, and that’s where I met Fawn years ago. All of a sudden, for a few months, she was very quiet. I never knew where she was – well, she was in Lynchburg! She was doing all this research, and one day she was like ‘I've got to share this with you’. She sent me an NDA and the rest is history. My first response to her was ‘I drink Chardonnay!’. I discovered Highballs, and I'm super happy with that as a cocktail. I enjoy the art of storytelling. There’s so much power in whiskey and the sharing of whiskey, and that’s what I've grown to love about it so much.
MN: I've worked in many bars and events, but my introduction to Uncle Nearest is probably the most interesting thing. A friend was sick and couldn't do a shift. I decided to pick up his shift and one of the bottles that was on the bar was Uncle Nearest. I can remember tasting it and for the first time ever buying two bottles of something that I was actually working on. I just said ‘if you ever need anybody to work for you in the future, I’d love to’. Eventually I went out to see the distillery and that was it, that was me done. Meeting the team, it’s stacked full of powerful women. There’s an incredible feeling around the company that everything is moving in one direction and moving forwards for a reason. It’s probably the best sort of company I've worked for.
P&S: Can you paint us a picture of the distillery?
KJ: I mean it’s quintessential Tennessee! It’s a Tennessee Walking Horse farm. There are three main tenets to Tennessee: its whiskey, its music and its horses.
MN: It’s a spread-out ranch and it looks like the stereotypical horse farm, rolling green fields, and this beautiful white building with the tiny little tower. But it’s not until you walk through the actual doors that suddenly you are hit with the fact that it’s a distillery. This huge bar suddenly appears and suddenly it feels like a distillery. You walk from the hot Tennessee atmosphere into this air-conditioned bastion, and it feels very old and very new at the same time.
P&S: And finally, what’s your favourite way to drink Uncle Nearest?
MN: I love my cocktails and I've come through that industry, but I think the best way to drink whiskey is with friends. There’s a tendency for people to want to save it for themselves and it’s just no fun like that.
KJ: My favourite way to drink it is as a Highball. And for me it’s the slice of orange, and I will say I get really particular about the soda I use!
Thanks so much to Kate and Matt for chatting with me – needless to say, I made myself a Highball immediately after!
Until next time,