Friday 14 September 2018

Uncle Nearest: something new from Tennessee

Think of “Tennessee whiskey” (if you think of it at all) and you’ll probably think of Jack Daniels, the mighty presence that, certainly here in the UK, tirelessly advertises on the London underground with vast posters emphasising the old-school homeliness of its global brand. I must have ticked a box once and ever since I receive weird branded merchandise on my birthday, so eager is the JD machine to make me feel part of some community of honest, whiskey-swilling folk, modest, plain-speaking, thrifty and hard-working.

In fact you’d be hard put to find another Tennessee whiskey here. Specialist shops offer some George Dickel products (see below) and Master of Malt have a few historical bottlings too, but that’s about it. So I was intrigued to be approached by a new brand, Uncle Nearest.

Nathan “Nearest” Green was an ex-slave turned whiskey maker, the first African American master distiller on record and the man who taught Jack Daniels how to distil—but a figure who then got lost in history. In fact the desire to bring Uncle Nearest’s story to the world seems to be the main motivation behind the new brand, and they have even set up the Nearest Green Foundation so some of the whiskey’s profits can fund a museum and book dedicated to Green’s life and scholarships for some of his descendants.

As a slave, Nathan ran the still at the farm owned by Reverend Call. Jack Daniels was eight years old when Call introduced him to Green, asking Green to teach the boy how to make whiskey. When the good Reverend’s parishioners objected to his involvement in the ungodly business of making liquor, Call agreed to sell the distilling operation over to Daniel. By now the Civil War was over and, when Daniel founded his own distillery in 1866, he hired Nathan, now a free man, as his master distiller. He went on to employ three of Nathan’s sons as well and, later, four of his grandchildren. Direct descendants of Nearest were still working at Jack Daniel’s into the 21st century. Yet for years it was widely accepted that Reverend Call himself was Daniel’s mentor; it wasn’t till 2016 that the New York Times ran a story revealing that it was the slave Nearest Green who really taught Daniel.* Only last year did Jack Daniel’s officially recognise Green as their first “head stiller”. (Certainly now the JD website has more information on Nearest than the Uncle Nearest website does.)

In this early-1900s group shot Jack Daniel is centre in the white hat; to his right is Nearest's son George

So much for the backstory—what of the whiskey? It’s a little hard to tell. The Uncle Nearest brand has come up with a recipe that they only say “is based on a Tennessee recipe that hasn’t been used since 1912”; the mash bill is 90% corn and rye (they don’t say in what proportion) and in the Silver version there is 3.5% malted corn, which is apparently unique. All the grain is locally sourced and the spirit is distilled twice. One of the defining characteristics of Tennessee Whiskey is the “Lincoln County Process” (which Nearest himself helped to develop), where new-make whiskey is filtered through a stack of sugar maple charcoal. UN have come up with a proprietary version of this, “an intricate 11-step, 25-day process utilizing a one-of-a-kind triple charcoal mellowing system”.**

The company are in the process of building their own distillery, but for now the whiskey is made for them by a distillery in Nashville. They are selling an unaged “Tennessee Silver” whiskey, while the rest of the spirit goes into new, charred American oak barrels for ageing.

What is confusing is that they already have a “Premium Aged” whiskey—which is what I was sent—and are about to release a 12-year-old single barrel edition. This whiskey has been sourced from the stocks of two other distilleries, though UN have developed their own post-ageing filtration process to which they subject the bought-in barrels to create their own character.***

You can see, as with so much these days, there is a great emphasis on heritage and locality. The company already own Dan Call Farm, the Reverend’s place where the whole story started, and when talking of their new distillery—complete, of course, with visitor’s centre and even a music venue—they emphasise the economic benefits to the community, the use of local crops, their plan to have their own 100 acres of corn, in-house malting, etc. So what exactly is “Tennessee whiskey”?

At a federal level Tennessee whiskey is legally defined is a “straight bourbon whiskey” made in Tennessee. A “straight” whisky is defined as fermented grain distilled to no higher than 80% ABV then aged for at least two years at no higher than 62.5% ABV in new, charred American oak barrels; prior to bottling it may only be filtered and diluted with water. The term “bourbon” carries most of the requirements of straight whiskey, but without minimum age—although “straight bourbon” must indeed have been aged for at least two years. Moreover “bourbon” must be made in the United States from at least 51% corn. However, few makers of Tennessee whiskey use this term. State legislation goes further, adding that “Tennessee whiskey” must use the Lincoln County Process—but the law (dating from 2013) makes specific exception for Benjamin’s Pritchard’s whiskey, which has never used the process and has no desire to, and some smaller distillers have grumbled that the legislation means that all Tennessee whiskies effectively have to be made like Jack Daniel’s.

There is plenty of whiskey made in Tennessee that can’t be called Tennessee whiskey, either because it is not aged long enough or uses a more rye-heavy mash bill. George Dickel, founder of what is now the second biggest brand after Jack Daniels, thought his liquor the equal to any Scotch and to this day the brand calls its product by the Scottish name “whisky” instead of “whiskey”. As for the Lincoln County Process, ironically in 1871 the rearrangement of boundaries meant that the Jack Daniel’s distillery, where the process was developed, was no longer in Lincoln Country—the one distillery still in Lincoln County is Pritchard’s which, as noted above, is the one Tennessee whiskey that does not use the process.

Oddly, Tennessee is a state where Prohibition never really went away: until 2009 there were only three counties, out of its 95, where distilling was even legal. By default it is still illegal to sell alcohol or alcoholic beverages, and it is down to individual counties to decide otherwise. There are still 13 dry counties, and 69 of the remainder only allow it within certain jurisdictions (my favourite is Decatur County, where liquor may only be sold by the drink, in restaurants with a capacity of at least 75, within three miles of the Tennessee River).

To get a sense of what Uncle Nearest are up to, I line up a bottle of their Premium Aged alongside a bottle of regular Jack Daniel’s Old No.7. The JD starts off with a whiff of varnish, a hint of smoke and some peardrop fruitiness. The palate is pretty thin-feeling, with that varnish element, bananas and a bit of charcoal with a bitter finish. By comparison Uncle Nearest has a nose that is straightaway more inviting, with a pronounced caramel note, plus marzipan and fruitcake and a bit of sesame. On the tongue it is strikingly smoother and sweeter than JD, even though it is 50% ABV.

Moving then to Bulleit Bourbon—the only other American whiskey I have in the house at the time—this has a mellower nose and a palate that is fundamentally different from the Tennessee whiskies, with a fruity quality that is somehow reminiscent of shampoo, but not in a bad way. But I would still say that Uncle Nearest has more structure and poise to it.

Bulleit itself has a fairly high rye content (28%, with 68% corn and 4% malted barley), but I was surprised that the Uncle Nearest struck me as having a rye-like spiciness too. Yet the word on the street seems to be that the bulk of it is most likely sourced from George Dickel, and their mash bill is just 8% rye.

George Dickel was briefly advertised here with the slogan, "If you
only know Jack, you don't know Dick". It doesn't seem to have
done them any favours
Later, I manage to get hold of a bottle of George Dickel Old No.12. It has a softer nose than Uncle Nearest, fragrant and perfumed by comparison, with a orange-fruit palate and more pronounced caramel. I’d say it was smoother on the tongue (but then it is 45% ABV, to UN’s 50%)—and smoother too then Jack Daniel’s. Again JD strikes me as having a flabby, wet-cardboard character compared to the fruity poise of the Dickel. And I would say that, neat, the Dickel is more drinkable that Uncle Nearest, though that may just be because of the alcohol. All three Tennessee whiskies here have a bitterness on the finish, perhaps the result of all that exposure to charcoal.

As an experiment, I add water to a sample of Uncle Nearest to dilute it by a quarter to get its ABV down to 40%, so I can compare it to JB on an even footing. At this dilution it still comes across as noticeably smoother and with an elegance and depth, notes of old wood and marmalade. JD is thin and can only muster those pear-drops and a bit of wet plaster. UN is drinkable at 50% but I experimented with drinking it over ice, and even when I absent-mindedly allowed all the ice to melt I found the resulting heavily-diluted whiskey was an interesting and flavoursome beverage.

I don’t know if there are any classic Tennessee whiskey cocktails, but I try Uncle Nearest in some obvious Bourbon or rye concoctions. It has the backbone to sit easily in an Old Fashioned or Sazerac—it doesn’t need the added sugar to make it smooth, but at the same time it has the strength and presence to cut through and make for a proper drink, not liquid confectionary. It also makes a cracking Manhattan, with plenty of heft to create a focused drink but enough refinement to sit well with high-quality ingredients (I was using Antica Formula vermouth). Mind you, if you follow Difford’s proportions of 2½ shots of whiskey to one of vermouth (and I tend to add a splash of maraschino too) you do end up with a modestly-proportioned drink that packs about four units of alcohol… I likewise tried it in a Boulevardier and even that combination of vermouth and Campari could not swamp the whiskey’s presence.

Uncle Nearest Premium Aged will retail in the UK at about £50.

* In fact Nearest was first mentioned in a 1967 book on Jack Daniel, according the the Foundation, and again in a 1972 issue of the Tennessee Historical Quarterly, but it was only recently that his contribution became widely know.

** Interestingly, Jack Daniel’s “Gentleman Jack” product differs from regular JD whiskey in that it gets a second charcoal filtration, something that Daniel himself allegedly experimented with.

*** Uncle Nearest refer to “special carbon and DE filtration”, which turns out to stand for “diatomaceous earth”—filtering through the fossilised remains of micro-organisms. These fossils can be found in great numbers where they sank to the bottom of prehistoric lake beds and are now mined in certain parts of the world. DE filtration has been used to produce safe drinking water since the 1940s and is common in the beer and wine industries to achieve a clear final product, but less common in whiskey-making. Brittany Crockett of Uncle Nearest tells me that they do have their own bespoke DE process, and the sourced whiskies they are currently selling are actually taken to Kentucky for the special filtering to make them even smoother than they already are.