|UNCLE NEAREST PREMIUM WHISKEY|
|Three years after launching Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey in Shelbyville, Tennessee, CEO Fawn Weaver’s company produces America’s fastest-growing premium-aged brand. Uncle Nearest earned the “world’s best” title at Whisky Magazine’s 2019 World Whiskies Award.|
Uncle Nearest is dearest to Fawn Weaver.
Weaver, an entrepreneur, author and historian, is founder and CEO of Shelbyville, Tennessee-based Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey and co-founder of the Nearest Green Foundation, which honors Green’s legacy as America’s first known Black master distiller with a scholarship program museum, memorial park and a book.
Green, who was born a slave in Tennessee and referred to as “Uncle” as a sign of respect by everyone in his orbit, is more famous now than when he was as the 19th century mentor to young Jack Daniel, who went on to launch a global brand based on his distilling technique. Weaver created the Uncle Nearest brand in 2017 to acknowledge Green’s contributions to American distilling and since its debut has become America’s fastest-growing premium-aged whiskey, earning the title “world’s best” at Whisky Magazine’s 2019 World Whiskies Awards.
“The juice is really good and our challenge was we knew the story was incredible,” said Weaver, 44. “We knew the brand story was going to be incredible, but how do we make sure that the juice mirrored the level of excellence of Nearest Green.”
Weaver is the best-selling author of “Happy Wives Club: One Woman’s Worldwide Search for the Secrets of a Great Marriage” and before that was a marriage and relationship blogger. “Happy Wives Club” is a 2014 USA Today and New York Times bestseller, and spurred advocacy for marital happiness through “The Argument-Free Marriage: 28 Days to Creating the Marriage You’ve Always Wanted with the Spouse You Already Have.”
The daughter of Motown Records songwriter and producer Frank Wilson, who produced numerous hits for the legendary recording label’s stable of singers, Weaver talked with The Post on launching the Uncle Nearest brand, Black participation in the industry and Green’s legacy. Responses are edited for brevity and clarity. Video of the interview can be found here.
Q: What were the challenges to starting the Uncle Nearest Brand?
Weaver: “It’s really expensive to do what we’re doing. My husband and I are blessed. We are fortunate we have been successful in our lives, but we weren’t successful enough to pull this off. It was going to take tens of millions of dollars just for true entrance into this business to make any kind of real impact, any kind of real splash, which meant we were going to have to raise money. But that’s not what we did. People came to us as investors, for us to invest. We weren’t used to being on the other side of pitching and we certainly didn’t want to pitch friends and family because it was going to be a high, high, high risk investment. If [industry giants] Brown-Forman or Jack Daniel decided to fire all their missiles at us, we could have lost everybody’s money and so, there was a massive reluctance to do it. We were doing our due diligence, but there was still a massive reluctance.”
Q: What was the ingredient other than investment, that made the business possible?
Weaver: “We are a purpose-driven brand. We are a purpose driven company before there was any bottle of Uncle Nearest ever sold. I met with the young people that this generation of Nearest Green descendants because I realized they didn’t understand the legacy of excellence they came from. I brought them photos of Nearest’s children and his grandchildren and to see the photos you will never know that they were the children of a formerly enslaved man. They were a part of elite society, in Lynchburg, if they walk down the street, they were getting the same level of respect as Jack’s family. That’s insane. at that period of time it’s insane now, but it was really crazy at that time. And Nearest immediately following the Civil War was not only the wealthiest African American in the area, he was wealthier than a lot if not most of his white neighbors.”
Q: There seems to be disparity of Black professionals in the distilling industry compared to consumption.
Weaver: “Here you would be surprised. Seventy-eight percent of American whiskey buyers are white men. We drink a lot more cognac than we do whiskey. Who we’re making rich is Hennessy, the French [holding] company LVMH. We do not drink as much American whiskey as I hope we will because of Uncle Nearest and because of other brands that come out, but there’s a reason for that, I believe… What I can say is American whiskey is a challenge because I didn’t recognize it, and I didn’t understand it, but for the first two years of Uncle Nearest, I got no qualified resumes for a person of color.
“One, I think that African Americans, we generally do not want to go into fields where our ancestors did not have a choice in the matter. You rarely see us as housekeepers. You don’t walk into people’s homes and see us as housekeepers and cooks. Very rarely and some you’ll, have private chefs in which they’re charging people a fortune, but just a cook or a house cleaner, you generally aren’t going to see a lot of [Black] people doing that. You also generally are not going to see us in tobacco or cotton, and you’re not going to see us in American whiskey and that is because our ancestors did not have a choice in going into those industries. They had to. They were enslaved into them. I think that’s the first issue.
“The second is African Americans, as a general rule, we’re raised religious, either Muslim or Christian. Both the ministers and the pastors railed against the alcohol industry and for whatever reason, specifically whiskey. So, we don’t look at it as a virtuous industry if we have the ability to take our talent into another industry. We’re going to do that because we don’t want to be the one at the family reunion saying ‘hey I work for a whiskey company. And in the way that I discovered that is unfortunately my own bias. I didn’t realize I’m the child of two teetotallers. My father was a pastor.
Q: Are you saying then that there’s a certain element of shame among black folks in the industry?
Weaver: Well, every single one that I’ve talked to, it was subconscious. It was something about every single one of them has said it wasn’t intentional, but every single one of us, including me, had never updated their LinkedIn page to claim the spirit company. There had been people who had been at Jack Daniel for I think, 20-something years. [Jack Daniel Vice President and Assistant General Manager] Melvin Keebler just updated his like three months ago because I gave him a hard time about it.”
Q: So, it’s got to be organic in terms of encouraging Black folks to join the industry?
Weaver: “I think it’s got to be organic. It also has to be intentional. For instance, Melvin Keebler over at Jack Daniel, he’s been going to HBCUs for five years and trying to get the chemistry students to see distilling as one of the routes that they can go and in those five years I think he said he got like two takers.
“So, we’ve got to make the industry cool for us and start bringing them in. I don’t know how to erase the shame that is associated with it I guess subconsciously, but I’m working on it, and I can say that I see more African Americans coming into roles in this industry right now than I have ever seen, and definitely since I’ve gotten here. I would say we’re headed in the right direction.”
Q: What things have you learned, being CEO, that you did not understand when you first started?
Weaver: “That you can say no to really powerful people. I do it like every day. It’s interesting because you hear a lot about the difficulty of raising money and you hear a lot about African Americans having a challenge with their boards and people coming on the boards and trying to either push them out or to rule and run [the business] and all the rest that stuff. I raised a significant amount of money to do what we’re doing. I never gave up a board seat. Still haven’t. I control the votes. I have said no to more investors than I have said yes.”
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