Jul 1, 2022 - Things to Do

Uncle Nearest builds "Malt Disney" south of Nashville

A bar with bright stained glass windows.
Philo + Frank's, a non-alcoholic speakeasy inside the Nearest Green Distillery. Photo: courtesy of Nearest Green Nearest Green Distillery

If you make the hour-long drive south to Shelbyville to visit the Nearest Green distillery, you'll hear the familiar speeches about barrels in the storage barn that ooze a sappy substance and the proof of each specialty bottle.

  • But you'll also learn about the dotted line connecting the trailblazers behind women's suffrage to the Black man who helped make Tennessee whiskey an international commodity.

Why it matters: A tour of the Nearest Green distillery offers much more than a mere description of how its trademark whiskey brand, Uncle Nearest, is made.

  • The distillery's CEO Fawn Weaver is creating a campus that combines the rowdy party of a classic honky tonk with an immersive history lesson that feels ripped out of your favorite museum.
  • Weaver tells Axios her vision is to provide a tour experience that offers something for whiskey-lovers, their teetotaling family members and children who aren't old enough to drink. There's even a recreation of the Gulch’s popular angel wings mural.

State of play: Weaver wants visitors in Shelbyville to feel like they've taken a trip to "Malt Disney."

What she's saying: "A distillery tour is a distillery tour is a distillery tour, if you're all talking about equipment," Weaver tells Axios.

  • "I wanted to make sure we stood out and separated ourselves from every other distillery out there so it feels like it is something that is for everybody."

Zoom in: At the centerpiece of an Uncle Nearest tour is the story of how former slave Nearest Green taught a white boy named Jack Daniel to make whiskey, and how he was later relegated by history to footnote status as Tennessee whiskey became a worldwide brand.

Yes, and: Weaver got the idea to merge that moment in Tennessee history with another. In a recreated bar room — which looks more like a church, with stained glass windows lining its walls — a tour guide is moved to tears describing Tennessee's historic vote to codify the 19th Amendment into the U.S. constitution.

  • Weaver says she wants visitors to get the same chills she got when she learned the stories of Tennessee women who fought for the right to vote.
  • "I am a big believer in whatever you focus on grows. So everything we focus on in our distillery are things I want to see grow in the world," Weaver says, explaining the unique historical lessons her tour includes.
  • "I thought, 'What better place to do that than to start off a tour when everybody's expecting me to talk about whiskey, then to talk about the opposite?'"

The big picture: Weaver is pairing those moments of reverence with rip-roaring celebrations fit for Tennessee's most iconic musicians.

  • The coming addition of the Humble Baron restaurant and bar is the Shelbyville farm's next investment. The venue will host concerts from every genre of music, Weaver says. And when construction is complete, the plan is for it to be certified as the world's longest bar.
  • "My only instruction [to the audio-visual designer for the music venue] was, 'Build it for Garth.' Because if we meet Garth's rider, we meet anyone's rider."

Weaver's success in launching Uncle Nearest with her husband, Keith Weaver, is already the stuff of legend in the world of American spirits.

  • She read about the life of Nearest Green, the distillery's namesake, for the first time in a 2016 New York Times story. That created a domino effect that led the public relations executive turned entrepreneur turned best-selling author to relocate from California to Shelbyville.

Be smart: Learn more about Fawn Weaver's unique rise in this episode of "How I Built This with Guy Raz."

The intrigue: Weaver's sales pitch to bars and other alcohol sellers was not delicate. She asked them to show her a spirit brand that wasn't representative of a white man.

  • Her sales pitch worked, but industry experts say Weaver had a standout product to sell. The whiskey is raking in accolades.

Driving the news: The straw that stirs the drink at Uncle Nearest is master blender Victoria Eady Butler, who has twice been recognized by Whisky Magazine's American Icons of Whisky Awards as the master blender of the year.

  • Weaver's goal was for each whiskey batch to be blended by a descendant of Green, according to Food & Wine.
  • Butler, who is Green's great-great-granddaughter and worked for the Justice Department before her great palate changed her career, is the first Black woman to win the honor and the only person to win back-to-back.

As Uncle Nearest has grown, Weaver has expanded her mission by partnering to create an investment fund to help launch more minority- and women-owned alcohol businesses.

  • The fund provided $2 million each to London-based Equiano Rum and Jack from Brooklyn, the maker of sorel liqueur.
  • The most recent recipient, Hella Cocktail Co., received $5 million, it was announced earlier this month.

Between the lines: The booster program helps connect new businesses to marketing, distribution and public relations partners.

The bottom line: "When you're African American in this country, you feel a burden to pull as you climb," Weaver says.

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