How Fawn Weaver Built a Multi-Billion-Dollar Whiskey Brand in Just 7 Years

In her new book "Love & Whiskey," the founder of Uncle Nearest talks about becoming a spirits conglomerate and correcting history

June 5, 2024 3:08 pm
Fawn Weaver, founder of Uncle Nearest
Fawn Weaver, CEO of Uncle Nearest Inc., is the first Black American woman to found and lead a $1B+ company outside of sports and entertainment.
Uncle Nearest

In 2016, The New York Times dropped a bombshell of a story, provocatively titled “Jack Daniel’s Embraces a Hidden Ingredient: Help From a Slave.” The feature landed the same year the iconic Tennessee whiskey brand was celebrating its 150th anniversary. One year later, entrepreneur and author Fawn Weaver launched a whiskey brand to honor Nearest Green, the enslaved person mentioned in the article. Green was not a slave of Jack himself; in reality, Jack and Nearest were friends, and Green was later the first Master Distiller for the budding whiskey brand started by Daniel. 

On June 18, Weaver’s account of both Green’s remarkable story and the difficulties and rewards of founding the Uncle Nearest brand will be shared in Love & Whiskey: The Remarkable True Story of Jack Daniel, His Master Distiller Nearest Green, and the Improbable Rise of Uncle Nearest. The book serves both as an extraordinary journey through several centuries of American whiskey making and how a newspaper article led to the creation of an acclaimed, multi-billion-dollar business in just seven years. 

The front and back of Fawn Weaver's new book "Love & Whiskey"
Fawn Weaver’s new book “Love & Whiskey”
Melcher Media Inc

And the rise of Uncle Nearest has also been remarkable. Since its launch in 2017, the Tennessee whiskey brand has been the most-awarded bourbon and American whiskey of the last five years (admittedly, that’s according to the brand; it’s hard to quantify numbers like that independently, but Uncle Nearest does win quite a lot). More importantly, Uncle Nearest helped reshape the audience for whiskey and how we talk about it. As Weaver writes in Love & Whiskey, “In 2024, thanks to Uncle Nearest and the work we’ve done to reposition bourbon in the market, no one would look at bourbon and say, ‘That’s a white man’s drink.’ But in 2017, that was absolutely the way it was.”

Uncle Nearest Is the Most Important Story in American Whiskey History
How a 19th-century slave’s legacy is shaping one of today’s most award-winning spirits

Love & Whiskey is more than just an overdue history lesson combined with business acumen. It’s also a remarkable peek into Weaver’s life (kicked out of her home at 15, a business owner by 19) and how determination, research and resourcefulness — and a lot of grace — helped forge a modern-day spirits conglomerate. It’s also an ode to Jack Daniel himself and the town of Lynchburg, TN, an anomaly in 19th- and 20th-century race relations (as in, everyone got along, as witnessed by Jack and Nearest’s friendship). 

We sat with Weaver for an hour-long discussion, touching on the legacy of Green, the challenges of building a spirits company in the 21st century and how to stay infinitely patient with people and businesses who may be out to crush your ideas.  

George Green and Jack Daniel
Nearest Green’s son George, sitting next to Jack Daniel (center middle row) at the distillery, around 1900
Uncle Nearest

Gracefully Uncovering the Hidden History of Jack Daniel’s

I’ve spoken with Weaver a few times over the years about her conciliatory and positive “let’s work together to tell this story” attitude toward Brown-Forman, the parent company of Jack Daniel’s, which hasn’t always promoted the history of Nearest Green — or necessarily been a fan of an upstart coming to their neck of the woods to launch a whiskey. In her book, Fawn sheds some insight on the few times that tested her patience, particularly when she thought her budding whiskey brand was under attack.

“I needed full context before I spoke plainly,” she explains. “And I needed to be able to show grace. If I said some of this back [before the book], those quotes would have been pulled out and become the whole story. If you remember the original article, everyone thought Jack was a slave owner and stole the recipe. That was nowhere in the article. I didn’t want that to happen.”

Today, Weaver describes her relationship with Brown-Forman in warmer terms. “We’re good,” she says, laughing. “And I get where they were coming from. You have someone who’s talking about a portion of your story, and you can’t control what they’re saying. It’s going to be annoying. If I was running a company and saw this person on the news talking about me every day…I never got upset with them because if it was me, I would have been annoyed, too.”

On Becoming a Spirits Conglomerate

News broke recently that Uncle Nearest was surprisingly getting into the categories of both Cognac and vodka. Turns out expansion has always been a goal of Weaver’s. As she writes in Love & Whiskey, “The fastest way for a brand in this industry to die is to stay small.”

“If you think about it, Bacardi started as Bacardi rum, right? Now in the industry, when we saw Bacardi, we’re rarely talking about just the rum — we’re talking about Grey Goose, we’re talking about D’usse, we’re talking about Patrón,” she says. “So that’s what Uncle Nearest is going to do — not for vanity reasons but because we really don’t have a choice. The big guys have margins to play with, and I don’t. I can’t do that with just Uncle Nearest.”

The award-winning Uncle Nearest whiskey lineup
The award-winning Uncle Nearest whiskey lineup
Uncle Nearest

Why Craft Doesn’t Mean Staying Small 

Weaver remembers her first speaking engagement, which took place in front of a craft spirits group as the keynote speaker. “No exaggeration, it was a thousand white dudes and four women,” she says. “I get to the end of my speech, and there’s a standing ovation. But then I heard there were these pockets of people talking trash about how quickly I was moving and how we weren’t really a ‘craft’ company. Our ambition was too great. We weren’t even a year old! For a lot of people, it’s the idea of struggle until you die — you can’t be craft and successful. I don’t understand why people want to die on that hill.” To that end, if you get a chance, head to Shelbyville, TN, and visit the distillery, a sprawling and captivating complex that features the world’s longest bar.

On the Appeal of Cognac

As mentioned, Uncle Nearest recently secured ownership of Domaine Saint Martin, a 355-year-old estate in Cognac, France. You’ll see the results of that purchase soon. “Uncle Nearest is specific to one or two people,” Weaver says. “Cognac ties into the fiber of America. It’s not just the African American history of it, it’s bigger than that. We’re the number one consumer of Cognac, and nobody’s asked why. Also, [when it comes to Cognac] why are we drinking two-year-old juice? Could you imagine this country falling in love with a two-year-old bourbon?”

Why Vodka Is a Terrible Idea (Until It Isn’t)

Weaver is blunt. “I hate vodka,” she says. “It smells like rubbing alcohol, it tastes like rubbing alcohol. People say it doesn’t taste like anything? Neither does rubbing alcohol. But the team has wanted to get into vodka for a long time. But I can’t sell anything I don’t genuinely like. And people tend to sell vodka or gin when they’re in financial trouble.”

Still, the appeal of vodka began after Sean “Diddy” Combs sued Diageo (and word came out about the musician’s private behavior). “All these restaurants and bars thought they had a Black-owned product in Ciroc — a product specifically of their culture,” Weaver says. “And once they learned it wasn’t owned by someone of the culture but rather a big spirits conglomerate, they wanted to find another vodka.”

In the end, Uncle Nearest acquired Square One Organic Spirits, the first organic rye vodka brand. “I was surprised, but I found a flavor profile I actually loved in their vodka,” Weaver says. 

On Cultivating Endless Patience

“I don’t want to call it a gift, but I can step into the shoes of another person and look at my own faults and equate them,” Weaver says, who mentions in her book losing her patience only twice during the entire seven-year process of building Uncle Nearest. “I may have done something hurtful to someone or spoken unkindly to someone. So I look at my flaws and faults and equate that to what another person is doing. And I’ve never required an apology from another person. I’ve got to maintain my own peace.” 


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