Column: Reopened Nearest Green Distillery Is “More Than Whiskey”

By Cary Ann Fuller / June 21, 2021

To get to the Nearest Green Distillery, which I visited this past weekend as they reopened in the midst of expansion, you need to travel about 20 miles south off of Interstate 24, the primary route between Nashville and Chattanooga. It’s a straight shot down a four-lane highway that runs through Murfreesboro and Shelbyville. Horse farms and fireworks stands punctuate the rolling green hills between towns. This is God’s country.

This highway might be familiar to non-locals as the way to get to Jack Daniels in Lynchburg. Outdated Trump campaign signs still stand in the sprawling yards of those who live on this road. The “Stars & Bars” flag flops in the wind on more than one of the front porches in this area.

It is a quiet juxtaposition that the Nearest Green Distillery, a monument to honor a former slave, sits squarely in the middle of so many expressions of the ideology that enslaved him.

Nearest Green Reopening

Ribbon cutting at the reopened Nearest Green Distillery (image via Cary Ann Fuller/The Whiskey Wash)

The time for this event, for this acknowledgment, for the celebration has come. There is an urgency and an exhale. Emotions are high. Feelings are raw. The time is now.

Juneteenth was being celebrated as a federal holiday for the first time and the weight of this day was palpable in the air on the Sand Creek Farm turned distillery property. I found myself at 9 o’clock in the morning with the Tennessee sun beating down on the crowd gathered for the ribbon cutting. Politicians, local dignitaries, investors, industry friends, family, families, press, and whiskey enthusiasts were all gathered to witness the historical event. There was an energetic buzz of joy and excitement mixed in with the gravity of it all. Tears flowed freely and often as the day got underway.

Victoria Eady Butler, descendant of Nearest Green and master blender for Uncle Nearest, addressed the thousand or so people assembled. “Last March, when we had to close due to the pandemic, we had no idea that it would be 15 months later before we could welcome guests back into our space. Not only is this morning special because of that, but we’re unveiling our new Welcome Center. We are honoring all things history- anything attached to Tennessee history- music, the walking horse, NASCAR, and of course, my great great grandfather Nearest Green,” she said.

The crowd erupted with the mention of the man we were there to honor.

Fawn Weaver, founder and CEO, took the microphone to a rowdy round of applause and thanked everyone for being there, in the hot sun, to participate in the moment and to acknowledge the Juneteenth holiday. Speaking of the historical artifacts enshrined inside the exhibits of the new visitor center, she said, “What you are about to see is our ancestors’ wildest dreams.” More applause.

Nearest Green distillery exhibit

One of the powerful exhibits at the Nearest Green Distillery (image via Cary Ann Fuller/The Whiskey Wash)

Fawn acknowledged her husband, Keith Weaver, who stood just behind her, “He allows me to stand out front and take the recognition, but let’s be clear, this would not be here if it was not for him.” Keith shied away from the microphone to cries for a speech.

The ribbon was cut, Lift Every Voice and Sing blared over the loudspeakers, and the doors were flung open. The masses made their way out of the sun and into the air-conditioned center- part museum, part family tree, part gift shop. It is inside the welcome center that Fawn stationed herself in a corner, accepting hugs, shaking hands, and taking endless selfies with every single visitor that approached her. She was gracious and humble in the midst of controlled chaos. She has super fans and each of them walked away with ear-to-ear grins, many faces streaked with happy tears.

Later Fawn shared with me, “the number one thing people said to me, that really touched my heart throughout the day, was how emotional it was for them to be in an event with so many people of different races and backgrounds, all having a great time together. They could literally look around the property and see people talking to one another, who they knew- without a doubt- were on two different ends of the political spectrum, but it didn’t matter. All differences people had seemed to be transcended…at least for one day.”

Come for the whiskey, stay for the history. Tours and tastings are available, of course, but the Nearest Green Distillery is not your average distillery visit. It stands there, in a town riddled with Confederate flags, as a commitment to tell the stories of  the marginalized.

Nearest Green’s life and contributions are now on display in a place where families can bring both their children and their elders to hear the story of “the best whiskey maker the world never knew.” The distillery also pays homage to the temperance and suffrage movements in a one of a kind, dry speakeasy.

As we discussed the day, Fawn said, “the event truly encapsulated our slogan, ‘More than whiskey‘,” and I had to imagine that every subsequent visitor will agree.