As seen in the pages of Sweet July Magazine. Get the Spring/Summer 2022 Issue here! (Featured photography by Jason Meyers and Eric Ryan Anderson)
Fawn Weaver built Uncle Nearest into the fastest-growing independent American whiskey brand. And her business formula—both in and out of the barrel—is only getting stronger with time.
On the window ledge of Fawn Weaver’s office sits a message board that reads, “Humble with two shots of confidence.” Like everything Weaver has done since founding Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey in 2017, the words have been placed there with purpose. It’s a mantra that Weaver lives her life by—one that’s helped her develop Uncle Nearest into the lucrative, award-winning whiskey brand that’s now enjoyed around the world.
“I’m not usually this dressed up,” Weaver shares as she sits down for the interview at the Nearest Green Distillery in Shelbyville, Tennessee. It was a big photoshoot day. She’s in a long lavender-belted jacket dress and boot heels that she effortlessly struts in, even when she’s on the varying surfaces of the distillery grounds. But her natural confidence can’t be pinned down to just style. When she talks about the path to launching Uncle Nearest, it’s clearly something she knows by heart—yet it feels as if she’s telling it for the first time.
“I knew we were being helped from above,” Weaver recalls of her journey, which seems like equal parts drive and divine. She came across the story of Nathan “Nearest” Green in a New York Times article while traveling abroad in 2016. Green was a Black man, a former slave, who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. As the head distiller of Daniel’s eponymous whiskey, Green was instrumental to the start of the brand.
Weaver’s curiosity about Green’s story—after contemplating ideas such as turning it into a movie or book—ultimately evolved into the decision to honor his legacy by creating a whiskey brand in his name.
“I would tell people from very early on that what we are doing is chiseling Nearest Green’s face into the side of the Mount Rushmore of whiskey,” says Weaver. “It’s always had Johnnie Walker, Jim Beam and Jack Daniel, and now we are adding a fourth person.”
She adds, with a laugh: “The only thing I had to do was not screw it up. I actually think true confidence is more closely aligned with humility than arrogance, and much of my humility comes from the fact that there is something much greater at work here.”
With that confidence in tow, Weaver has broken barriers. Not only has she earned herself a top spot in the historically white and male-dominated spirits industry, she has also succeeded in an area that many Black-owned businesses struggle with: raising money. After investing $1 million of her own money to start Uncle Nearest, she’s raised more than $100 million to date.
“We don’t have the luxury of waiting until we’ve succeeded to go back and show the way, we have to show the way as we’re finding it on our own.”
Her 80-plus-person team has an all-women executive quartet, including Victoria Eady Butler, the master blender, and Sherrie Moore, the director of whiskey operations descendants of Nearest Green and Jack Daniel, respectively. “They grew up together; now they’re making whiskey together,” says Weaver of the two women.
The 323-acre, four-phase, $50 million project that is the Nearest Green Distillery is still being worked on (it’s currently in phase three), but most of the public-facing features, many of which are nods to Tennessee history and culture, have been completed. That includes a welcome center, designed by the former president of Disney Stores Worldwide, James Fielding, and visual storyteller Cyndi Williams; Philo + Frank’s, a nonalcoholic speakeasy that educates guests about Tennessee’s role in the women’s suffrage and temperance movements; the Family Tasting Room; Barrel House BBQ restaurant (the first location outside of Lynchburg, Tennessee); and more. Coming soon is also Humble Baron, an entertainment venue that will be home to the world’s longest bar.
“Nearest Green is such an American story, but it is a Tennessee story, specifically,” Weaver says. “Nearest Green Distillery—the first African American–owned distillery, the first distillery in the world to be named after an African American, the first spirit bottle in the world to commemorate an African American—is happening in Tennessee. It was important for us to make that super clear.”
Then there’s the actual liquid formula of Uncle Nearest whiskey, which has earned the brand the title of the most-awarded whiskey or bourbon for the past three years. Since it launched, Uncle Nearest has racked up 380 awards, including 46 Best in Class awards. What sets Uncle Nearest whiskey apart, Weaver says, is the attention to detail. “Victoria, Nearest’s great-great-grand-daughter—if she tastes a barrel and she doesn’t like it, that sucker’s going back into the rickhouse to continue aging. We’re not blending in something that’s not ready.”
Earlier this year, the brand began bottling its own whiskey, unveiling new packaging of a product that’s 100 percent distilled, aged, and bottled by Uncle Nearest, along with a new slate of whiskeys using four different recipes.
While this is her first experience in the spirits industry, Weaver had an early start at being boss. “I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life,” she says. “That part comes naturally to me.” At 18, she launched her first company, a public relations and special events firm. From there, she has worked across the hospitality industry in roles including partner and business manager. She’s also a best-selling author; her books Happy Wives Club: One Woman’s Worldwide Search for the Secrets of a Great Marriage and The Argument-Free Marriage focus on another area where Weaver has had great success: marriage. (More on that later.)
To work with Weaver, you also have to be confident. That applies to the businesses she invests in. So far, as part of Weaver’s $50 million Uncle Nearest Venture Fund to support emerging spirit brands helmed by people of color, her team has invested $2 million each into the London-based Afro-Caribbean rum company Equiano and Jack From Brooklyn, Inc., the maker of Sorel Liqueur.
“We don’t have the luxury of waiting until we’ve succeeded to go back and show the way; we have to show the way as we’re finding it on our own,” Weaver says. “We were always going to pull as we climb—always.”
Weaver has tasked herself with quite a lot, so when she heads home at the end of each workday (minutes down the road from the Nearest Green Distillery), she makes sure to invest in some self-care. From the #SundayWithTheWeavers Instagram sessions she holds with her husband and business partner, Keith Weaver, to her streamed yoga sessions, Weaver is very intentional about showing people the more personal aspects of her life.
“Keith and I spend a great deal of time making sure people see us as a couple, not just as business people,” says Weaver. “I think that’s really important because, for us, so much of our success is our marriage and the fact that we are partners in everything.”
In all Weaver does, she’s determined to make and keep Uncle Nearest a household name. “The mission is to make sure that 100 and 200 years from now, it’s continuing to grow,” she says. And as the whiskey’s popularity soars, Weaver hopes people also continue to talk about Nearest Green. There’s a strong chance that years from now, people will still be talking about the woman behind the brand, too.