For nearly a year Sean Beck, sommelier and beverage director for H-Town Restaurant Group, has hosted weekly virtual tasting events at Backstreet Cafe. During these Zoom-based get-togethers, called Whiskey Wednesday, Beck guides guests through the world of spirits, introducing the people and stories behind the bottles. This weekly ritual gives enthusiasts and beginners alike the opportunity to discover a variety of liquors, while also making new friends. Typically, each event features a representative from the highlighted distillery, along with a sampling of the brand’s spirits. These sessions are informative, but never feel like sitting through a lecture, as Beck is skilled at creating an engaging conversation.
Besides whiskey, the events have featured sherries, rums, tequila and cocktails. Along with a selection of spirits, the virtual gatherings come with a choice from a list of rotating Backstreet Cafe entrées, including Hugo’s Hot Chicken Sandwich and Wood-Grilled Hugo’s Burger, as well as other tasty treats.
Fawn Weaver and Truth of Nearest Green
Recently, Houston Food Finder was invited to join as Beck hosted Fawn Weaver, founder and CEO of Uncle Nearest Whiskey, who in her short time in the industry has helped clarify the history of American whiskey.
For most of the history of Jack Daniel’s, one of America’s iconic whiskeys, the corporate mythology stated that Jack Daniel learned the art of whiskey making from his employer Dan Call. For Jack Daniel’s 150th anniversary, however, the brand officially acknowledged that Daniel actually learned the art of distilling from Nathan “Nearest” Green, an African American man that was enslaved by Call. A 2016 New York Times article explains that Daniel was a worker on the Call farm, and Green was instructed to teach him how to distill and charcoal-filter whiskey.
After reading the news, Weaver, who is a New York Times bestselling author, TEDx speaker and entrepreneur, visited the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg but was disappointed when Green wasn’t mentioned in the tours she took. Wanting to learn more and to work with Jack Daniel’s to better represent Green’s contributions, she began researching Green, Daniel and the company’s history.
During her investigation, she befriended descendants of Green, some of whom still work at the distillery. She learned that Daniel treated Nearest and his sons, who continued the distilling legacy, with a great deal of respect and fairness. She also learned that instead of Green’s work being stolen, he became a respected employee after the Civil War. Moreover, he was likely America’s first African-American master distiller.
It became clear that Daniel himself had always been forthcoming with how important Green and his sons were to him and the distillery. Even in 1967, the first Jack Daniel biography described how much Green meant to Daniel’s legacy, and that he was not trying to hide Green’s contributions. During her research Weaver’s mission became, “to raise one legacy without hurting another.” She eventually accomplished that goal. Jack Daniel’s parent company, Brown-Forman, worked with Weaver to restore Green to his rightful place in the center of the distillery’s history.
This is the tip of the iceberg. For a great interview with Weaver telling the full story, which culminated in the founding of Uncle Nearest Whiskey brand, check out Dan Pashman’s conversation with her.
Sampling the Whiskeys of Uncle Nearest
Weaver didn’t stop at uncovering Green’s history. She went on to found a whiskey brand honoring his legacy called Uncle Nearest. During the March 31 edition of Whiskey Wednesday, Weaver and Beck presented both of the Uncle Nearest Tennessee Whiskey expressions available in Houston. The first sip of the night was Uncle Nearest 1884 Small Batch. This whiskey, named for the last year that Green is believed to have distilled it, is a respectable pour and retails for around $50. It’s a blend, with the youngest component being aged a minimum of seven years. 1884 has a vibrant amber hue, carries a sweet aroma but a fairly dry taste. All of the notes produced are subtle, but enjoyable. While only 93 proof, 1884 contains enough heat to make for an interesting sipper.
The 1884 may have left a more impactful memory if it wasn’t immediately followed by the powerful, Uncle Nearest 1856 100 Proof. The 1856, named for the approximate year that Green and Daniel met, is a definitive example of what makes Tennessee whiskey different from bourbon. This whiskey fully utilizes what is called the Lincoln County Process, an extra filtering step that uses charcoal to mellow the harsh, dry, tannic character imparted during the 8 to 14 years of aging. The pour is polished, without the expected burn of higher proof whiskeys. This Uncle Nearest style is deep bronze, contains a citric, slightly floral nose and tastes of vanilla followed by a bevy of spices. At around $60 dollars, it is worth the extra investment.
In addition to the straight pours, the tasting included cocktails that demonstrated the versatility of the two whiskeys. Bootstraps & Pie featured Uncle Nearest 1884, apricot brandy, sage and toasted pecan syrup, and the recipe is on the Uncle Nearest website. The 1856 was used in the Nearly Perfect Manhattan, which combines whiskey with red and white vermouths, bitters, saline and a Meyer lemon peel.
The event not only introduced guests to two worthy whiskeys, but also provided important and engaging history and conversation. Be on the lookout for more great Whiskey Wednesday events. Information is regularly posted by Beck on the Houston Bourbon Society’s Facebook page.