Jack Daniel's, one of the most popular whiskey sellers on earth, is now officially owning a huge part of its history that it had previously swept under the rug: Jack Daniel learned how to make whiskey from Nearis Green, who was a slave. The New York Times reports that while this important piece of information has always been known, it is only just now being incorporated into the company's official narrative about their namesake and the origin story for their product.
According to the Times, official accounts of how Jack Daniel learned to make whiskey stated that Daniel was taught by Dan Call, who was a preacher, grocer, and distiller. The historical truth of the matter, however, is that Green, who was owned by Call, is the one who taught Daniel how to make his now-famous booze.
Now that the brand is hitting its 150 year anniversary, they've decided to remove at least some of the whitewashing from its history. Nelson Eddy, the in-house historian for Jack Daniel's told the New York Times, "It’s taken something like the anniversary for us to start to talk about ourselves." The Times reported further that although whiskey is seen historically as a very white drink (most associated with Scots-Irish and Germans), enslaved black people played a massive role in distillery work and the creation of the whiskey itself in pre-abolition South.
While Jack Daniel's is framing the change in their official story as one of wanting to tell the whole truth, others see the move as one of commercial opportunism. Blood and Whiskey: The Life and Times of Jack Daniel author Peter Krass told the New York Times,
When you look at the history of Jack Daniel’s, it’s gotten glossier over the years. In the 1980s, they aimed at yuppies. I could see them taking it to the next level, to millennials, who dig social justice issues.
Svend Jansen, the Global Public Relations Manager for Jack Daniel's told Complex over email:
The Nearis Green story has long been on the Jack Daniel’s Wikipedia page, in both biographies about Jack Daniel's and has been told by our tour guides. It’s also one that’s been told to media who have visited the distillery.
Telling such uncommon stories during the Jack Daniel Distillery's 150th anniversary is an appropriate way for us to observe this milestone.