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Futures

Fawn Weaver Is Changing the Face of American Whiskey

June 02, 2021

Story: Megan Lloyd

photo: Nick Hensley

Futures

Fawn Weaver Is Changing the Face of American Whiskey

June 02, 2021

Story: Megan Lloyd

photo: Nick Hensley

The first Black woman to launch and lead a major spirit brand has made it her mission to ensure she becomes one of many.

For almost two centuries, the mainstream spirits world didn’t know about Nearest Green, the formerly enslaved man who taught Jack Daniel how to make Tennessee whiskey. When author Fawn Weaver read about Green’s untold story, she moved to Tennessee to follow a trail of momentous research and made it her mission to bring his legacy to light.

Shortly after the move, in 2017, Weaver launched Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey to give Green his overdue recognition. But for Weaver, a self-described maverick, tribute simply wasn’t enough. She hired a diverse all-female leadership team, including Victoria Butler, a fifth-generation descendant of Green, as the master distiller. Butler quickly became the first known African American in this position, and Weaver, the first female and first African American to lead a major spirit brand. Uncle Nearest is now the most awarded whiskey in Tennessee, as well as the most awarded whiskey of 2019 and 2020.

In the brand’s first two years, Weaver hardly saw a single résumé from a woman or person of color. “Why would someone want to go into a field when they don’t see anyone like them at the top?” says Weaver. But since Uncle Nearest’s inception, that paradigm has flipped; now 50 percent of applications come from women and people of color. Weaver’s colleagues across the industry are seeing a shift in their companies as well.

The Mount Rushmore of whiskey essentially has had three heads all this time, and we’re carving the fourth one.

Much of this can be credited to the Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative that Weaver established with Jack Daniel’s. The three-prong program creates a pipeline into the industry for BIPOC and women from the Nearest Green School of Distilling. Its Leadership Acceleration Program, which gives apprenticeships to African Americans in the whiskey industry, “helps elevate Blacks into the highest ranks of the spirit industry, in the fastest way possible,” says Weaver. Nearest itself also supports BIPOC-owned spirits brands of varying scales with its Business Incubation Program and Black Business Booster program. “Our measurement for each of these [programs] is simple: More successful Black-owned spirit brands, more successful Blacks in leadership positions, more BIPOC and women entering the spirits industry on the operations side.”

Even Green’s whiskey-making process has experienced change at a foundational level. Butler, Uncle Nearest’s master blender, has always tasted and tested spirits at full proof before blending, an uncommon practice for traditional distillers who dilute to 40 proof to better detect flaws. “It turns out she had an unbelievable natural talent for blending,” says Weaver. “The way Victoria is doing it is going to be revolutionary for the blenders that come after her.”

Weaver believes the brand’s success—the company’s equity-driven programs, the diverse team, the product itself and the millions of consumers buying bottles—is “ensuring the legacy of Nearest Green is cemented for every future generation.” As for what’s next, she points to America’s three most prominent whiskey brands as a reference for Uncle Nearest’s future: “The Mount Rushmore of whiskey essentially has had three heads all this time, and we’re carving the fourth one.”

Current occupation:

CEO, Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey and Nearest Green Distillery.

Current mission statement:

To live my life in a way that is good for all concerned.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

A great wife, mom and kickass businesswoman… all at the same time.

Describe your daily routine in one sentence:

S.A.V.E.R.S. (Silence, Affirmations, Visualizations, Exercise, Reading, Scribing) before 8 a.m. Disciplined and efficient the remainder of the day.

Your greatest accomplishment to date?

Maintaining an incredible marriage for nearly 18 years while building an empire.

Biggest failure?

What are those?

The No. 1 thing you want to eradicate from drink culture?

Excess. #DrinkHonorably #EmbraceModeration

The one adjective youd use to describe yourself:

Gifted.

Best thing you ever drank:

Too many great drinks out there, but whatever it was, it included Uncle Nearest, that much I know.

Worst thing you ever drank:

It’s a toss-up between Crystal Geyser and Dasani. For the love of God, why do these two reverse-osmosis bottles of tap exist?!

The one wine/beer/cocktail that best reflects you/your interests/tastes:

Penicillin: Healing but powerful, with a bit of kick.

What do you know now that you wish youd known five years ago?

Say no as often as possible and say yes, almost never.

Your favorite bar, and why:

Multnomah Whiskey Library, because their mixologists spend more than six months studying whiskey history before ever being allowed to work there. So they are all like a talking whiskey Bible.

Best meal youve ever had:

Oh, that’s hard as I am a serious foodie. Perhaps the crispy Peking duck at Yauatcha Soho London. With all the fixins.

The last text message you sent:

To my husband: “Want to go to lunch? This braider is FAST!! I’ll be done in an hour or so.”

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Tagged: futures, whiskey

Megan Lloyd is a food, beverage, and travel writer based in Seville, Spain. Her writing has ap-peared in TASTE, Serious Eats and Eater, among others.