Whiskey remains a booming business, and increasingly more and more entrepreneurs are trying to get into the game. Uncle Nearest is one of the latest entrants into the small batch whiskey field, with a branding that pays homage to a little known — but highly influential — figure in American whiskey history.
Nathaniel “Nearest” Green was an enslaved African-American born in Maryland sometime around 1820. Owned by the Landis & Green company, during the 1850’s he was leased to a preacher named Dan Call in Lincoln County, Tennessee. Not only was Dan in the preaching business, but he was also in the distilling business. Nathaniel displayed an aptitude for making delicious whiskey, and over the years would become the head distiller for Call’s operation — becoming the first known African-American whiskey distiller in the United States.
One unique aspect of Nathaniel’s distilling process was the use of sugar maple charcoal to filter the whiskey. According to some historians, this process was widely used in West Africa to filter water and this may have been how Green came to know of it. That charcoal filtration would later become known worldwide as the Lincoln County process and become the defining feature of Tennessee Whiskey.
Nathaniel Green and Dan Call would eventually take in a young Jasper Newton Daniel when he ran away from home. Daniel, who learned the art and trade of whiskey distilling from the pair, is better known today as Jack Daniel. He would go on to start his own whiskey distillery using the Lincoln County Process that he learned from Nathaniel Green and the Jack Daniel’s brand is one of the best-selling whiskey brands both in the US and internationally.
Fawn Davis, an African-American bestselling author, historian, and investor, co-founded the Uncle Nearest distillery which opened its doors in 2017 with the goal to celebrate this under-recognized distiller who played such an important role in the history of American whiskey. While they did not initially have a distillery facility themselves, according to TTB records they originally started producing whiskey through a Kentucky based third party called the Distilled Spirits Epicenter but as Josh in the comments points out they have since moved to using the Tennessee Distilling Group for their source. More recently they opened their own Shelbyville, Tennessee based distillery in 2019 and intend to manufacture their spirits there once that source is viable.
The homemade whiskey is still aging and a few years away from ready to hit shelves — so, for now, this spirit is instead sourced from a third party and bottled under the Uncle Nearest brand.
The spirit reportedly starts as a mixture of at least 51% corn (as would any Tennessee whiskey that Nathaniel Green would have produced), but the exact composition of that whiskey is not disclosed. The grains are milled, cooked, fermented, and distilled at an undisclosed distillery before being placed into charred new oak barrels for a period of not less than seven years.
Once the whiskey has been produced, the specific barrels used for this bottling are hand selected by co-founder and CEO Davis. The specific barrels that are blended together to form each batch of whiskey are then selected by descendants of Nathaniel Green, and the specific relative responsible for each batch is listed on the back of the bottle. This version I have was hand selected by V. Eady-Butler.
There is no indication of why this whiskey is designated with the year 1884.
The bottle has a nice clean look to it, but there isn’t a whole lot of design effort going on here.
The glass bottle itself has a rectangular cross-section, sporting flat sides that round rather quickly at the shoulder to a relatively short neck. The container is capped off with a wood and cork stopper.
As for the labeling… there really isn’t much here. There’s the brand name information and an illustrated drawing of a house — but I don’t see or feel any connection to the namesake of the distillery. Given that there is an amazing story to be told here and a rich history to this name, I would expect something about the branding and design to convey or tie into Nathaniel’s story. Instead, all I get is yet another generic southern whiskey design. It feels like a wasted opportunity.
There’s a good smell to this whiskey, with a well saturated caramel and vanilla aroma coming off the glass. In the background is just a hint of spice; a little bit of cinnamon to keep things interesting. Generally, all the aromas you’d expect from a standard charred oak barrel without any surprises.
The whiskey itself has a bit of bitterness in it, like the tannins in a glass of red wine, which develops as soon as you take a sip. Simultaneously, there’s the usual bourbon flavors in there as well — it’s like a Werther’s Original with a little bit of an alcohol kick. As the flavor develops further, there’s a bit of nutmeg in there followed by the fruity banana or apple flavor that you would usually find in a Lincoln County whiskey like Jack Daniel’s. It finishes with a bit of a black cherry or charred wood that lingers for a bit after the liquid is gone.
Ice is a double edged blade. In some spirits, it tones down rougher edges and makes the experience more enjoyable. But it can also eliminate the more delicate aspects and turn an interesting whiskey boring.
In this case, it’s definitely a case of the second scenario. Gone is the bitterness from the whiskey, but so are the lighter and sweeter flavors that made it interesting. It’s just charred oak at this point– harsher than before, if anything. Accentuated in there is that black cherry aspect, which additionally makes this a darker and richer flavored whiskey on the rocks.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
I usually prefer a darker and richer flavor profile to my whiskey and, as I just mentioned, that’s what I am getting here. The darker black cherry and charred oak flavors that remained even after the ice was added work well with the angostura bitters for a nicely balanced cocktail. There’s some depth and darkness here that I appreciate and it suits my tastes.
This is a case where a bit of a cherry garnish might work well, accentuating that inherent cherry flavor just a little bit more and adding just a hint of needed sweetness.
There are some good things going on here, and in general I like it.
The darker and richer notes from the whiskey do a great job balancing with the brighter and harsher ginger beer. It’s more like a Dark and Stormy cocktail than a Kentucky Mule, but that’s not a bad thing. What I like to see is that the spirit is adding something unique to the experience, and that’s absolutely what is happening here.
The only note I have (and it’s a personal preference more than anything) is that there’s no change to the tone of the flavor on the finish. Usually I like a high rye bourbon that adds some black pepper kick to the finish, but in this case it finishes smooth and even.
I think there’s a missed opportunity on the branding here. The label and marketing could have been much more focused on the story of Nathaniel “Uncle Nearest” Green, but instead this feels like they took a typical Kentucky whiskey and slapped his name on the label. I appreciate that the descendants of Uncle Nearest are involved in the process, but that is really only noted on the back of the bottle in the fine print. Its not necessarily obvious to the average consumer, and that’s a bit of a miss in my opinion.
As for the contents of the bottle, this is a fairly middle of the road whiskey for this price point in the market. There are some good flavors in here, but there are other bottles around this same price that have much more interesting or delicious flavors. It’s a tough field to compete in, and while they did a good job on this first outing it isn’t quite a home run. That said, I’m still eager to see what they put out once the product made directly by them is ready to hit the market.
|Uncle Nearest 1884 Small Batch Whiskey|
Produced By: Uncle NearestProduction Location: United States
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 46.5% ABV
Price: $39.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3/5
A missed branding opportunity, a middle-of-the-road product… but an incredibly worthy historical figure.