On June 1, Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey founder and CEO Fawn Weaver announced a $50 million venture capital fund to support rapidly growing, minority-owned spirits brands. The decision was announced to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Okla. While the fund is a monumental move, it follows a monumental pattern set by Weaver and the Uncle Nearest team. This includes Victoria Eady Butler, master blender and great-great-granddaughter of the company’s namesake.
Now recognized as the fastest-growing independent whiskey brand in history, Uncle Nearest was created as part of a larger effort to document Nathan “Nearest” Green’s once-forgotten legacy. Born in 1820 and enslaved in Tennessee, Green was the first person to teach Jack Daniel how to distill his namesake Tennessee whiskey. Green became the first master distiller at the storied brand, yet his tale was forgotten for nearly a century. That is, until this buried history sparked Weaver’s decision to open a distillery in his honor.
After retiring from a 31-year career with the Department of Justice, Butler joined the blending team —with no prior experience — to help create the company’s 1884 small-batch release. The bottle’s successful reception soon led to her appointment as the company’s official master blender. Every whiskey since has won honors — in 2019 and 2020, Uncle Nearest was the most awarded whiskey in America.
Now, Uncle Nearest whiskey is sold in 50 states, 10 countries, and plans to reopen its 270-acre distillery on another commemorative day: “We will welcome people back to the Nearest Green distillery in Shelbyville on the morning of Juneteenth,” Butler tells VinePair. Here, she details her journey within the growing brand, and the motivations behind its tremendous success.
1. What did you think when Fawn Weaver first reached out to you and explained her plans for Uncle Nearest?
When Fawn arrived in Tennessee in 2016, she started meeting the townspeople of Lynchburg [Tenn.] and my family, Nearest Green’s descendants. She reached out to me in regards to joining the team and it was an opportunity that I could not say no to — to be a part of continuing my great-great-grandfather’s legacy, one that lay dormant for more than 160 years. It was an opportunity to be a part of something really special.
2. What was it like to blend your first batch of whiskey? What went into the process and what was the steepest learning curve you had to tackle?
Naturally, the first time I went in to blend I was quite nervous. But once I got into it, the nerves quickly subsided, and I think one of the reasons is because Fawn put such great confidence in me. She set me up for success and now I do it with ease. I have embraced my skill set and abilities, and I truly believe that whiskey is in my blood. There’s no way to explain it otherwise, given that in just two years’ time I was named Master Blender of the Year [by the Icons of Whiskey American 2021 awards].
The shift to change from one career to another has been basically seamless. Our team is quite different from most. We are extremely encouraging of one another. It’s a team effort. Most everything we do, of course, with the blending process, that is me. But my team supports me fully, and all of them have great confidence in me, starting at the top with Fawn.
3. What was it like to taste your first batch with your team?
Oh, it was exciting. Very exciting to go into the lab for the very first time and face 31 or 36 samples of whiskey for me to decide which ones would go into the blending process. It was very exciting –– and it still is! The nerves are gone, but the excitement is there every time I blend.
4. When the awards started pouring in, how did that feel? What was it like to celebrate that success with your team?
Well, we have won so many awards and each one is as appreciated as the one before. I’m grateful for each one of them. While it’s my name on the bottle, it’s still all about Nearest Green. From the start of our brand launching, [our focus] has always been about Nearest and it always will be. I am extremely grateful for all of the individual accolades that I have received, but it’s all about ensuring that Nearest Green’s legacy is cemented in history.
5. What has it been like to serve as the director of the Nearest Green Foundation?
Given that Nearest Green was a once-enslaved man, didn’t have rights, couldn’t read, couldn’t write is what we think — basically, he didn’t have an opportunity to be educated — and now for his descendants all these years later, to have that opportunity to continue their education all the way through to their Ph.D. or law degree with the assistance of a foundation in his name, it’s just unbelievable. It’s a blessing that all of the family embraces.
And the foundation was established before the whiskey brand was launched. It was one of the things that Fawn thought was needed, and it is dear to her heart as well. A portion of the proceeds [of Uncle Nearest whiskey] go toward the foundation, so selling the whiskey is twofold: ensuring that Nearest’s name is cemented in history, and also giving a leg up to his descendants.
6. What is your favorite whiskey you’ve ever blended, and what are your personal markers for a successful whiskey?
Well, my favorite whiskey, of course, is Uncle Nearest. In fact, it’s the only whiskey I drink. I try to guard my palate. When I started this process, I didn’t go in with a preconceived notion about what I wanted it to taste like other than [wanting] the finish to be really nice. And I think I have succeeded in that. Now that I’ve been doing it, I have learned that my palate is on the sweeter side in regards to whiskey.
7. What do you want to see the whiskey world look like in the future?
I hope to see more people of color in positions that are visible like master distiller, master blender, people in decision-making roles, [with] more women in those positions as well. And we’re already seeing a shift. But that is my hope, that in the years to come, more people of color will be in decision-making roles and visible positions, and women as well.
8. Are there any exciting plans for Uncle Nearest in the near future?
Well, we’re opening our distillery on Juneteenth. That is a very big deal for us. We closed last March  due to the pandemic, and the decision to reopen on Juneteenth is purposeful. It’s all about history for us, and Juneteenth is a day that celebrates Black people, so we purposely decided to reopen our distillery [that day].
A lot of people in the U.S., up until a year or so ago, didn’t even recognize Juneteenth. And we want people to recognize that day. Everything we do is done with intention and reopening the distillery is no exception. We run at an accelerated pace every day. That is why we have become the fastest-growing American spirit in history. But we do it with excellence, and that is why we are the most awarded whiskey or bourbon for 2019 and 2020.