Last month, from April 17-18, the Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative hosted the inaugural Spirits on the Rise Summit – a two-day event connecting high-spirited BIPOC businesspeople with industry leaders from historically underrepresented communities to accelerate their business.
The first day of the event took place at Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee, and the second day at the Nearest green distillery in Shelbyville, Tenn. Located on the former site of the historic Sand Creek Farms, the Nearest Green Distillery now sits on 432 acres and is home to the Humble Baron bar and restaurant, boasting the longest bar in the world.
Nearest Green Distillery is named after the formerly enslaved, long unnamed man who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey when he was a boy. The distillery is a testament not only to the past, but also to the future, with its dedication to the diverse spirits industry Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey‘s CEO and founder Fawn Weaver, her husband Keith and the brand’s many team members and supporters, including Green’s descendants.
Related: Formerly enslaved black man closest to the green taught Jack Daniel everything he knew about whiskey. Today, the founder of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey continues his legacy.
“This day is for those who need or want a helping hand,” Victoria Eady Butler, Green’s great-great-granddaughter and Uncle Nearest’s master blender, says of the Spirits on the Rise Summit. “People in the industry who look like me.”
With Eady Butler at the helm, Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey became the most awarded American whiskey or bourbon of 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022. In addition, Eady Butler became the first woman to win the Master Blender of the Year title at Whiskey magazine‘s American Icons of Whiskey Awards in 2021 – and the first person to receive the honor for two consecutive years in 2022.
ukbusinessupdates.com sat down with Eady Butler at the distillery’s Barrel House II, where former horse boxes have been converted into booths for the second location of Chuck Baker’s beloved BBQ restaurant, to learn about her unexpected path to master blender, what’s involved in crafting the perfect blend and what it feels like to carry on her family’s legacy.
“I just couldn’t say no to the chance to carry on my great-great-grandfather’s legacy.”
Despite being the great-great-granddaughter of the first known Black distiller in the US, Eady Butler never intended to join the whiskey business.
Some of Eady Butler’s siblings work at Jack Daniel’s to this day; the “beautiful relationship” between Daniel and Green continued with their families for generations, says Eady Butler. But she was always focused on a career in law enforcement.
As a young girl she dreamed of becoming a police commissioner or taking part in hostage negotiations. Those aspirations inspired her to study criminal justice at Middle Tennessee State University and launched her 31-year career at the Department of Justice, where she spent more than 20 years leading and overseeing a team of criminal and forensic analysts.
Eady Butler was considering retirement when Weaver approached her about joining Uncle Nearest. “She and I got in touch and talked about what I could contribute to the team,” she recalls, “and honestly, I just couldn’t say no to the opportunity to help carry on my great-great-grandfather’s legacy. So the ‘yes’ was easy.”
So in March 2019, Eady Butler retired from the Justice Department on Thursday and went to work with Uncle Nearest the following Monday. She started out as VP of administration, but it wasn’t long before Weaver approached her about the possibility of blending.
Even though I was nervous, I just knew I wasn’t going to fail.
Eady Butler had no mixing experience, but she was willing to give it a shot.
“The first time I went in to mix, I went in with a ball of nerves,” says Eady Butler. “My background wasn’t in the spirits industry; I’d never even considered blending whiskey. I’d always enjoyed it with my family and friends, planning cocktails and things like that, but had never blended whiskey before – and of course I was nervous.”
But Eady Butler was surrounded by support. The Weavers and three team members with years of blending experience were on hand when Eady Butler attempted to blend her very first batch of 1884 Small Batch Whiskey.
Image credit: Courtesy of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey
Still, Eady Butler had the final say when it came to the blend. “The final decision on what to mix was up to me,” she says. “Even though I was nervous, I just knew I wasn’t going to fail. And luckily, of all the products that were on the table to taste, taste and mix, I made the right choices.”
Weaver told Eady Butler that she knew she had “something special” halfway through the first blending session — so she asked her to blend another batch of the 1884 and hasn’t been back to observe her blending since, says Eady Butler .
“Fawn Weaver was my ultimate cheerleader,” says Eady Butler. “She trusted me a lot that day, but she encouraged me as I did it. That took me a long way and I’m thankful for that.”
See also: With whiskey rates finally suspended, American distillers are raising a toast
“I always make sure that the aftertaste is good, but of course also the taste.”
Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey’s long list of achievements – 700 accolades and awards since the brand’s launch in 2017, including 78 “Best in Class” awards – is proof that Eady Butler was destined to become his master blender.
And it’s a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly. “We are a premium product, so I always want to make sure that what goes into the bottle is up to our brand standard,” says Eady Butler. “And then the finish is always important to me. It was from day one and it still is.”
Eady Butler tastes and mixes at cask strength, then lets it rise to make sure there isn’t much water in the product. “It’s important to me that the finish is strong and inviting, but not sharp,” she explains. “So I’m always looking to make sure the aftertaste is right along with the flavor of course.”
Eady Butler does everything she can to keep her palate sharp: she doesn’t eat or drink anything else while mixing, nor does she spit out any product. She is also “extremely loyal” to Uncle Nearest whisky.
“I don’t know if it’s scientific or if it’s just what I think is necessary, but I don’t drink any other whiskey,” says Eady Butler. “I don’t want to do anything that might upset my palate.”
Image credit: Courtesy of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey
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“What keeps me going is making sure we’re always focused on Nearest Green.”
Becoming an award-winning master blender at her great-great-grandfather’s distillery of the same name may not have been part of her original plan, but Eady Butler says the journey was one full of “beautiful surprises.”
One was the experience of working with Uncle Nearest’s executive team, something Eady Butler hadn’t had in the police force, where she said she was often the only woman in a room full of men.
“It’s hard to put into words,” says Eady Butler. “There’s a beautiful acceptance around the table of who we are, just the way we are. And then the creativity, the dedication, the juggling act that often takes place, multitasking. I feel very lucky to work with them and have them as my family.”
What we do is much more than whisky. Today we are change agents.
And of course, as the first known black woman to hold the Master Blender title in the US, Eady Butler gets to carry on the legacy of her ancestors in a most powerful and appropriate way, what she calls a “beautiful blessing.”
“I am honored to be the first African-American female master blender,” said Eady Butler. “But most of all what keeps me going is making sure we are always focused on Nearest Green. When Fawn launched this brand it was with the thought of making sure that Nearest Green’s legacy would be cemented in history. And that’s what keeps me going every day.”
Working at Uncle Nearest means there’s always something new and exciting happening, says Eady Butler. But at the end of the day, it all traces back to Nearest Green, the godfather of Tennessee whiskey who started it all – and whose legacy continues to take other BIPOC founders and spirits industry professionals to the next level.
“I woke up this morning with excitement and anticipation that this day would be a stepping stone to change someone’s life,” says Eady Butler, referring to the summit. “What we do is much more than whiskey. Today we are change agents. And I’m happy to be a part of that.”