Over the course of this country's 240-year legacy, rarely—if ever—have the contributions of slaves been given their rightful place in our history books. So over the weekend, in a report from the New York Times’ Clay Risen, it was refreshing to see Jack Daniel’s, one of the world’s largest whiskey producers, begin to acknowledge what it owes to a slave named Nearis Green, albeit 150 years late.
While the Whiskey company has often credited its now world-famous recipe to Dan Call—a Tennessee preacher and grocer who took a young Jack Daniel under his wing to teach him the art of distilling—the real mastermind was Call’s slave. Green’s sons eventually went to work at Daniel’s distillery once slavery was abolished in 1865, and the family’s contributions are known to some local historians in Lynchburg, but Green himself has largely been left out of the national conversation surrounding whiskey.
“Slavery and whiskey, far from being two separate strands of Southern history, were inextricably entwined,” the Times writes, noting that the prevailing narrative is that whiskey has its roots in German and Scots-Irish settlers. “Enslaved men not only made up the bulk of the distilling labor force, but they often played crucial skilled roles in the whiskey-making process. In the same way that white cookbook authors often appropriated recipes from their black cooks, white distillery owners took credit for the whiskey.”
Jack Daniel’s is celebrating it’s 150th anniversary this year, and, according to the company’s in-house historian, the benchmark made the whiskey purveyor start to examine its past. “It’s taken something like the anniversary for us to start to talk about ourselves,” he said.
Still, as the Times points out, there may be more self-serving interests at play. Whiskey has become increasingly popular with young drinkers in recent years, and the country at large has been forced to examine its own sordid racial legacy due to a series of highly-publicized police killings. Millennials care about whiskey, but they’re also starting to care about racial justice, and Jack Daniel’s may be trying to get out ahead of a potential controversy by beating its critics to the punch.
Though Jack Daniel’s is taking things slowly—mentioning Nearis Green’s name during select tours at its Lynchburg distillery, but avoiding a larger national campaign for the time being—the shifting narrative represents a small step in the right direction.
The ties that exist between Southern slavery, Jim Crow, and the whiskey industry are undeniable and deeply intertwined. John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, told the Times that the history now needs to be acknowledged and made right.
“It’s about paying down the debts of pleasure that have accrued over time,” he said.
[via New York Times]