Woodhaven’s historic Neirs Tavern hosts the debut of a whiskey that honors the legacy of Nearest Green, a black man who concocted Jack Daniel’s whiskey. // Public domain photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Historic Woodhaven Tavern Honors Influence of Black Distillers

By Sara Bosworth

A Woodhaven tavern is honoring the legacy of black distillers who played an outsized role in the history of U.S. whiskey industry.

On Thursday at 6 p.m., Neirs Tavern will host the official launch of a new whiskey brand that celebrates the enslaved man who concocted Jack Daniels whiskey and trained the company owner.

Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey takes its name from Nearest Green, known as Uncle Nearest, the enslaved man who taught Jack Daniel the whiskey-making process that made him famous, and who served as the company’s first master distiller.

For more than a century, the famous brand told an origin story that celebrated Jack Daniel, a white apprentice to a preacher, grocer and distiller named Daniel Call. According to the tale, Call taught the young Daniel everything he needed to know about running his own whiskey still.

But that version of the story was incomplete. It left out the key influence of Green, the man who Call described as “the best whiskey maker that I know of.”

It was Green, one of Call’s slaves, who actually taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey.

Green’s contributions went largely unrecognized until 2016, when the Jack Daniel’s brand used its 150-year anniversary as an opportunity to confront its true origins.

Uncle Nearest Whiskey, which will be the first spirit brand to commemorate an African-American, hopes to draw more attention to the complicated history of whiskey.

Whiskey was often produced at stills run by slaves and the history of whiskey is entwined with slavery  “in the same way that white cookbook authors often appropriated recipes from their black cooks,” the New York Times wrote after Jack Daniel’s first publicly acknowledged its own history of appropriation. “White distillery-owners took credit for the whiskey.”

The brand’s launch event will take place Thursday, Aug. 16 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and will feature free tastings.

The historic tavern has been around just as long as the American whiskey industry. Neirs first opened its doors in 1829 and has become a Queen institution over the past 189 years.

Thousands would recognize the bar’s interior from the mob classic “Goodfellas,” and the site has been frequented from everyone from Mae West to Anthony Bourdain.

The owner of Neirs Tavern, Loycent Gordon, immediately saw the connection between his bar and the new whiskey brand.

“This is bigger than race,” Gordon said. “Uncle Nearest is the story of Neirs Tavern, Queens, and many of the great places and people, like us, that haven’t received the recognition we deserve.”

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