women in whiskey
Covering both the science of distilling and the history of women in whiskey is less like a boring lesson and more like a great conversation over whiskey.
Victoria Eady Butler, Uncle Nearest
On Honoring the Legacy
Chatting with Victoria Eady Butler is like sitting on the porch enjoying a Sweet Tea Smash with a friend — relaxing and leaving you wanting to stay longer. It’s easy to see why, in addition to being a Master Blender for Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, a large part of her role is personally sharing her family’s legacy, specifically that of her great-great-grandfather, Distiller Nathan Green (who was known to his friends as “Nearest”).
By now, you may be familiar with Nearest Green and his role in what IWSR considers the world’s best-selling American whiskey year after year: Jack Daniel’s. (“IWSR” stands for the International Wines and Spirits Record, which lists itself as the “leading source of data, analysis and insights on the global beverage alcohol market” and is backed by the global spirits industry.)
But if you don’t know the story, in a nutshell, Nearest Green is credited with teaching a young Jack Daniel the art of distilling. He was a slave on the farm of Reverend Dan Call who had taken Jack in as a child. In Jack Daniel’s Legacy by Ben A. Green (no relation), Reverend Call is quoted declaring “Uncle Nearest is the best whiskey maker that I know of”. Jack ended up taking over the business. In 1865, the 13th amendment was ratified and Nearest Green agreed to be his Master Distiller as a free man.
While it is rumored that locals knew this story, it is the often cited “media reveal” by Clay Risen’s New York Times Article that inspired the Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey CEO and Founder, Fawn Weaver, to research his story for a possible book or movie so that the world would know. On her journey of international travel, thousands of hours of research (both personally by her and a team of professionals), and more importantly, after meeting his descendants, it was decided that the best way to honor his legacy was to launch both the Nearest Green Foundation and the Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey brand.
Victoria pointed out that the Foundation was specifically created and launched ahead of the whiskey. This is important because Uncle Nearest isn’t just another American whiskey entering the market, but is part of the overall goal to honor Nearest Green’s legacy. Since their recent brand launch and distillery opening in 2019, she’s not surprised to meet people familiar with Nearest Green. In fact, WBSE has had a few pioneering posts in our Facebook group asking if anyone’s tried it and their thoughts.
WBSE Member photos (Allen Alliston, Stephen Moulthrop, Brian Kleinhenz, Bobby Maroudas L-R)
But what may surprise some people is that while she was aware of her whiskey legacy, whiskey as a profession wasn’t her first choice.
Young Victoria dreamed about being a lawyer, and in the 6th grade decided she wanted to be in law enforcement working in police negotiations. She left Lynchburg for Murfreesboro, earning a degree in Criminal Justice at Middle Tennessee State University, then went on to work for almost 31 years in the Regional Organized Crime Information Center in Nashville. While there, she led an analytical unit working with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies in addition to prosecutors on investigations through the use of data intelligence.
Victoria was about to settle into retirement when she met Fawn Weaver, and the rest is now her legacy. She is referred to as the first “known and documented” African-American female Master Blender and is part of the first all-female executive team for a major American spirit brand. Besides Fawn Weaver, her colleagues include Katherine Jenkins (SVP of Global Sales), and Sherrie Moore (Head of Whiskey Operations). Fun fact: Victoria knew Sherrie from her childhood days, who had worked at Jack Daniel’s for decades, and then decided to return to whiskey to work for Nearest Green. You can learn more about this on their Uncle Nearest Ambassador Channel Pound the Rock.
“It’s Not Hocus Pocus”
While she did not have a formal education in blending, Victoria credits Sherrie, members of the Uncle Nearest team, and industry peers with helping her to build her whiskey knowledge foundation, from nosing and tasting with sensory kits, and the entire process of whiskey making from start to finish, before she started.
A fresh morning palate and an average of over 30 samples begins an average blending day for Victoria. She stated that "it’s not hocus pocus”, although likened it more to baking vs. cooking. i.e. When cooking, you can compensate with a dash of this or that as you cook; baking requires the proper ingredients and measurements from the start, and once the process has begun, you’re committed. Additionally, an integral part is providing input on barrel selection, char, and aging of the whiskey.
It seems that everyone agrees that the whiskey itself has some kind of magic; Uncle Nearest whiskey was the most awarded American Whiskey in 2019 with 55 awards, 19 “Best in Class”.
Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey has three expressions with the same mash bill of at least 51% corn: 1820 Single Barrel (aged a minimum of 11 years and a cask strength above 108), 1856 Premium (their flagship), and the 1884 Small Batch. (Although they had to source barrels prior to distillery opening, all their whiskey features “Premium Aged and Tennessee Silver products, distilled, aged, bottled and hand-labeled in Tennessee using locally sourced grains.")
1856 Premium Aged Whiskey
● Named for the year Nearest Green perfected his Lincoln County Process
● Blend of between 8 and 14-year-old whiskeys
● ABV: 50%, 100 Proof
● From their site - Nose: Bale of hay, dried grass, stone fruit notes of ripe peach and apricot, caramel corn and sweet maple; Palate: Spicy caramel up front with the proof, hints of maple then mellow with dried fruit and floral notes. Sweetness and spice reminiscent of freshly baked oatmeal raisin cookies; Finish: Long and rich finish, lingers pleasantly sweet on the palate, notes of vanilla.
While they didn’t list tasting notes for the 1820 (named for the year they speculate Nearest was born in Maryland), I had promised Victoria I’d pick up the 1884
1884 Small Batch
● Named for the last year Nearest put his whiskey in barrel; batch blended and signed by Victoria
● Minimum Age: Word on the whiskey street is 7 years (though not on officially on the label)
● ABV: 46.5%, 93 Proof
● Author Notes - Nose: Lemongrass and butterscotch scent. Palate: Initial mild whiskey burn that gradually settles and is an easy drinker for a bourbon lover or Peat Head. Notes of honey lemon cake that sneak in and out like that colleague on the Zoom call that knows how to use the Mute button. Vanilla Finish that makes me briefly consider braving the Covid-era NYC subway system to pick up Krispy Kreme donuts for pairing.
As whiskey lovers battle it out on whether Jack Daniel’s is a bourbon or not (I personally confirmed on an official media interview with Jack Daniel’s that it meets the legal requirements but they went through great efforts to cement the differentiation of a Tennessee Style whiskey), Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey using the Lincoln County Process of filtering with sugar maple charcoal is not only a fact but another attribution to his contribution to the whiskey industry in general, especially to Tennessee whiskey.
WHISKEY GEEKOUT: In this issue, read our “whiskey geek” article on Tennessee Whiskey and the Lincoln County Process.
Family and Friends
When Victoria isn’t blending or sharing the story of Nearest Green, she’s running the Nearest Green Foundation as its Director of Administration, whose mission statement declares that it exists to “shine a light on those who have been forgotten”. Its accomplishments have included a Legacy Scholarship program available to direct descendants of Nearest Green, preservation of the story through working with the Smithsonian on an exhibit, the construction of a memorial park in Lynchburg, and a republishing of Jack Daniel’s Legacy for the 50th anniversary featuring a foreword by Fawn Weaver.
Meanwhile, Nearest Green continues to contribute to the community at large through programs such as COVID-19 Support: 300,000 masks donated to essential workers and communities where African-Americans and Native Americans are impacted with disproportionately high death rates with 100% of the net proceeds from their Q1 and Q2 sales going to the cause.
Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative: Announced earlier this summer, both companies committed to an initial combined pledge of $5 million to increase diversity in the whiskey industry and create programming, through a trifecta of the Nearest Green School of Distilling, the Leadership Acceleration Program (LAP) for apprenticeships, and the Business Incubation Program (BIP), focused on providing expertise and resources to African-Americans entering the spirits industry as entrepreneurs.
Victoria still resides in Murfreesboro, 20 miles up the road from the Distillery in Shelbyville that opened last September and still enjoys cocktails with friends and family (she is a mother and grandmother). She also continues to volunteer with non-profit organizations such as Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, of which she is an active member.
To welcome the autumn season, Victoria invites you to try out this cocktail
The Fall Classic
Created by Mixologist Erica Mota (NettBar - Houston, TX)
1.5 oz Uncle Nearest 1884 Small Batch Whiskey
0.5 oz Domaine De Canton ginger liqueur
1 bar spoon of sour cherry jam
1 dash cinnamon
0.5 oz simple syrup
0.5 oz lemon juice
1 dash cherry bitters
Luxardo cherry, for garnish
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice, shake well (about 20 seconds). Strain into glass and garnish with cherry.
I hope you enjoyed meeting Victoria and learning about Uncle Nearest.
We look forward to introducing Ingrid Shawn Rodriguez of WhistlePig in November!