For years, visitors to Tennessee’s Jack Daniel’s distillery have gotten a version of history that goes down as smooth as a good whiskey: In the 1850s, a preacher and distiller by the name of Dan Call recognized potential in young Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel and taught him how to run a still.
But, as the bestselling whiskey maker approaches its 150th anniversary, The New York Times reports that the brand is revisiting history and embracing a more accurate historical account, in which Daniel was an apprentice to Nearis Green, one of Call’s slaves.
“It’s taken something like the anniversary for us to start to talk about ourselves,” Nelson Eddy, Jack Daniel’s in-house historian told the Times.
The story of Nearis Green was never one that Jack Daniel’s denied, but rather is just beginning to embrace, according to the Times.
Jack Daniel’s spokesman, Svend Jansen, in an e-mail, said the Nearis Green story has long been on the brand’s Wikipedia page, has been relayed by tour guides, and has been accounted for in both biographies about Jack Daniel.
“Telling such uncommon stories during the Jack Daniel Distillery’s 150th anniversary is an appropriate way for us to observe this milestone,” Jansen wrote.
A time line on the company’s home page gives this account: “1850: Mr. Jack goes to work at Dan Call’s distillery, where he learns all phases of the whiskey business.”
Beyond Jack Daniel’s, though, historical accounts of distilleries have mostly left out contributions made by slaves, who made up most of the industry’s labor force, and brought skill to the trade, focusing instead on Scottish, Irish, and German settlers.
Kevin Kosar, senior fellow at the R Street Institute think tank and author of Whiskey: A Global History, says it’s a difficult task to accurately tell business stories as Times reporter Clay Risen did.
“I was delighted that Risen did what should have been done a long time ago and get past the old-fashioned business history narrative. It’s a difficult history to write because businesses are private and can control their own records and tell their own stories.”
Because of that, Kosar says, American businesses often spin a “great man model” about visionaries who started companies.
While it’s long overdue, now that we know who was the true apprentice to Daniel, the next toast of whiskey goes to Nearis Green.
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