The First African American Woman Master Blender Is Here to End the White-Washing of American Whiskey
The story of how Victoria Eady Butler went from working as Analytical Manager in the Department of Justice to being the first known African American woman Master Blender in the American spirits industry has everything to do with her great-great-grandfather. Butler is a descendant of Nathan “Nearest” Green, the man who mentored Jack Daniel in the craft of whiskey distilling. Green, who was enslaved until 1865, was a highly skilled whiskey-maker and an indispensable advisor and distiller for Jack Daniel’s now internationally recognized whiskey business.
Historical documents indicate Green’s enslavers were a firm known as Landis & Green, who “leant out” Nearest Green for a fee to local preacher Dan Call. Green continued to work for Call after emancipation, and it was through Call that Green and Daniel met. Historians believe that Green was the person who first taught Daniel the “Lincoln County” method, by which unaged whiskey is filtered through charcoal to remove impurities, a process likely derived from West African alcohol-production traditions. When Jack Daniel began his whiskey business, he employed Green as his first master distiller.
The erasure of Black innovation from the history of American foodways is nothing new. But in 2016, Jack Daniel’s parent company Brown-Forman formally acknowledged Green’s pivotal role in the formation of the brand’s signature product. The following year, author, entrepreneur, and researcher Fawn Weaver founded an independent whiskey brand in Nathan Green’s honor called Uncle Nearest. Weaver intended for each batch of the 1884 Uncle Nearest whiskey to be blended by one of Green’s descendants, and Butler was the first one to step into the role.
Turns out that Butler has a knack for blending whiskey. The first batch she blended went on to win several awards and quickly sold out. “I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging or anything, but I did a good job,” Butler said in a phone interview. “I picked according to my palate, and it felt pretty natural for me, oddly enough.” Butler’s success led to another batch, and to a new title: master blender, the first Black woman to have held the role for a whiskey company, as far as Weaver and Butler have been able to confirm.
In the traditionally cloistered male and white world of whiskey, Uncle Nearest is a brand that is proudly Black-owned and operated, rooted in the history of long-overlooked Black innovation in the beverage space, and, by its very existence, a refutation of the old narratives that white-washed the American whiskey industry. American whiskey marketing often centers on the drink’s roots in Ireland and Scotland, or emphasizing its image as the de facto drink of masculine, dapper gentlemen, which are almost always white gentlemen. Centering the history and contributions of a Black distiller is way to question the lens that white historians and marketers have used to tell the narrative of American spirits.
Butler’s role isn’t just focused on blending. She is also the director of the nonprofit Nearest Green Foundation, another endeavor co-founded by Fawn Weaver established to spread Green’s story and provide scholarships for any of Green's descendants to go to whatever school they wish to attend. “We’ll pay your way all the way through a Ph.D,” Butler said. “We just had three recipients graduate this spring. Once Fawn does the research on something, the vision comes to fruition very quickly. We don’t sit on things.”
Even in the midst of the pandemic, Weaver and Butler have moved forward on other important initiatives. Uncle Nearest donated 300,000 masks to hospitals, essential workers, and communities. In June, Uncle Nearest teamed up with Jack Daniel’s to announce the Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative, a program intended to diversify the American whiskey industry and to introduce Black distillers to mentors, apprenticeship, and other resources. A key part of the initiative is the creation of The Nearest Green School of Distilling, a certificate program at Tennessee's Motlow State College. Both Uncle Nearest and Brown-Forman have promised $5 million in funding for the initiative.
“We are continuing to break barriers and be the first at things,” Butler said. “We have the only distillery owned and run by a Black female, and the only whiskey that honors a Black man on the bottle. I’m proud of what we’re doing. I can’t imagine what the future will be, but nothing surprises me anymore about what we’re going to do. I know this for sure: Whenever we decide to do something, we do it. I have enough to keep me busy, I’d say.”