History & Whiskey: A Black History Month celebration with North County Inc.

by | Feb 27, 2023

UMSL historians Peter Acsay and Laura Westhoff lent their knowledge to last Thursday's Black History Month event.
Black couple are smiling and laughing at a table during a dinner event.

Desmond and Sparkle Williams enjoy the history and flavor of Uncle Nearest whiskey at North County Inc.’s “History & Whiskey Tasting” event last Thursday in celebration of Black History Month.(Photos by Wendy Todd)

Whiskey drinkers may be aware of a fairly new brand, Uncle Nearest, but may not know the full history behind the label, named in honor of a formerly enslaved man, Nathan “Nearest” Green, who helped teach a young Jack Daniel the art of distilling.

In recognition of Black History Month, and to celebrate its board and community, North County Inc. held a “History & Whiskey Tasting” event last Thursday that involved telling of the history underlying the alcoholic beverage.

Bottles of Uncle Nearest Whiskey

The brand Uncle Nearest whiskey has a meaningful history and legacy.

Peter Acsay and Laura Westhoff, faculty members in the Department of History at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, lent their knowledge to the event, with Acsay sharing some historical details about north St. Louis and the first published Black author, William Wells Brown, who had ties to the area.

Acsay provided information about the story of Brown, who published “Clotel: The President’s Daughter” in 1853 and subsequently wrote several plays and other novels. Brown grew up enslaved in St. Louis, working as a house servant, field hand, tavern keeper’s assistant, a printer’s helper and an assistant in a medical office. Acsay recounted that Brown grew up “10 miles north of the city of St. Louis, on Poplar farm.”

Brown eventually escaped in 1853, traveled the world writing and even lecturing on abolitionism.

It was an eye-opening account of not only the rich history of north St. Louis, but also the incredible story of a former enslaved person with no formal education who wrote and published several works during a time of extreme oppression.

The story of Brown connects to the history of Uncle Nearest in that Green was also an enslaved Black man who created history.

LaVar Douglas, marketing manager for Uncle Nearest, presented the background of the brand, created by Fawn Weaver.

Green, who was from Nigeria, is the first “known African-American master distiller,” having worked on the Dan Call Farm just outside Lynchburg, Tennessee, where there was a whiskey distillery in the back. He perfected the distillery process with techniques he learned in Africa and eventually taught Daniel the art of whiskey distillation. He went uncredited for this for over 150 years.

Douglas felt it was important for the public to know of Black history as it is also American history.

“I just tell people this is an untold story; it’s our story, it’s America’s story,” he said. “We’re able now, because of our great leader, Fawn Weaver, who brought the story to life in 2017, when she introduced the world to 1856. She opened a door to everybody about the man that was behind making what you know as Jack Daniel’s.”

Following the history presentation was the whiskey tasting that offered education on the different colors, smells, flavors and finishes of the liquor.

North County Inc. President and CEO Rebecca Zoll wanted to provide the community with a unique experience to commemorate Black History Month that combined education with a social component. She reached out to UMSL Chancellor Kristin Sobolik for ideas on collaborating, which led to the connection with the university’s history department.

North County Inc. President and CEO, Rebecca Zoll thanks Uncle Nearest, attendees, UMSL and other sponsors for supporting the event.

“With Peter and Laura understanding how enriching Black history is, especially in St. Louis, and in the north St. Louis County community, it all came together in an exciting way,” Zoll said. “We thought this would be an awesome opportunity.”

Westhoff, chair of the UMSL History Department, was very excited to team up with North County Inc. on the event.

“We support our community and enjoy sharing what we do and bringing in the history department out into the community,” she said. “But we especially enjoy learning from the community and our community partners. North County Inc. was wonderful to work with. It was a very nice and fun event.”

Wendy Todd

Wendy Todd