In order to be called Tennessee whiskey, a distiller must use the Lincoln County Process. Started in the 1800s, it involves filtering unaged whiskey through vats filled with charcoal made from sugar maple trees. This makes Tennessee whiskey smoother than bourbon, with notes of vanilla, caramel and hints of smoke from the charcoal vats.
The man who created the Lincoln County Process was former slave Nathan Green (often mispronounced as “Nearist”). Fawn learned of the Green family in a New York Times International article about the history of Jack Daniels. Instead of the brand’s namesake being in the center of the photo, it was George Green. He was the only person of color and it turns out, the son of Nathan Green. She was intrigued.
Fawn initially wanted to write a book about Nathan Green, chronicling the untold story of America’s first Black master distiller. Then, she pivoted to an even better idea — producing award-winning whiskey from a farm in Green’s Tennessee hometown. Along with Victoria Eady Butler, Nathan Green’s great-great-granddaughter and the first Black female master blender in American whiskey, Uncle Nearest ranks as one of the country’s most awarded whiskeys and one of the category’s fastest-growing brands.
Recently, we caught up with Fawn to learn more about her journey and hear her advice for fellow entrepreneurs.
1. Why did you start Uncle Nearest?
To cement the legacy of the world’s first known Black American master distiller, Nearest Green, for every future generation. And to ensure his story was never again forgotten.
2. What obstacles did you face along the way?
People assume I faced many obstacles along the way to building Uncle Nearest, and there is no doubt I did. But I never focused on them enough for them to be worthy of a detailed recall.
Every entrepreneur of a fast-growing consumer goods company (or, in our case, a rocket ship) has the same challenges when it comes to capital, supply, standing out in a crowded market, and getting into stores. Still, since our country has been in constant turmoil and crisis since 2016, we faced additional challenges at launch.
Since our debut in July 2017, I’ve already weathered more potentially catastrophic events than most CEOs have across their entire careers. That includes COVID, BLM protests, global supply chain shortage, and the all-around tightening of capital. But, as anyone who knows me or works alongside me will tell you, I spend zero time focusing on challenges, except to knock them out of the park and move on to the next one. I believe that whatever you focus on grows — I have no intention of watering seeds of obstacles, because I don’t want to grow.
However, I do focus on the innumerable opportunities we’ve been given. One of the most significant opportunities has been showing women and people of color how to stop asking for a seat at the table. Instead, they need to build their own table and do it with such excellence that even those who are not minorities will want a seat. That’s how you foster real change and inclusion. I’m honored to be a catalyst for change and grateful for the opportunity to do even more on this front.
3. What lessons do you have for other entrepreneurs?
Before you move forward with the business, establish a solid business plan that includes a detailed SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis. If you’ve already started without a SWOT analysis in place and find yourself struggling, take a moment to pause and reset. Go back and do what you should have done from the beginning — write the business plan.
I’ve completed a SWOT analysis on every idea I’ve ever had because it challenges many aspects of the business plan. When an idea doesn’t make sense, I don’t move forward with it. Many entrepreneurs fall in love with their ideas, and their ideas become sacred cows. Don’t let that happen — challenge your idea and keep on challenging it until it’s bulletproof.
You can’t raise money and succeed without a solid business plan. So, even if you are starting out with just your savings, write out the business plan as though you are fundraising. I have seen so many entrepreneurs lose their savings ()not to mention the savings of friends and family) because they skipped this step.
Once you have a solid business plan and decide to move forward, do not give up. Entrepreneurialism is not for the faint of heart. If you are looking for something easy, this is not the path. Do everything with excellence — even the little things — and continue to do everything with excellence consistently over time. If you do this, you will succeed. How do I know? Because failure doesn't really exist. Failure isn't failure unless you give up before you succeed.
4. What’s on the horizon for Uncle Nearest?
Worldwide domination. Oh, did I say that out loud?
All kidding aside, we have many incredible things on the horizon. Still, we won’t share most of them until the time is right, because the element of surprise is one of our superpowers.
We just recently opened the world’s longest bar at the Nearest Green Distillery. Measuring at more than 500 linear feet, Humble Baron beat the previous Guinness World Record holder by more than 100 linear feet. But we didn’t just break the record — we future-proofed it with a building that’s designed for expansion. If anyone tries to create a longer bar, we’ll be able to knock out two walls and extend it to more than twice the size. So, even though we don’t expect anyone else to try, we have a backup plan — just in case someone is so bold. That way, the World’s Longest Bar will forever live at Nearest Green Distillery.
Our distillery has welcomed over 100,000 visitors in the past 12 months, and we expect that number to triple by the end of 2023. We will expand outside of the U.S. beginning in 2024 and reach one million cases sold by the end of this year. Not bad for a brand that’s about to celebrate its six-year anniversary.
5. How do you keep work/life balance? What drives/inspires you?
What drives me is purpose. What inspires me is purpose. Every Uncle Nearest team member knows we are not in the whiskey business. We are in the legacy cementing business. We have one job and one job alone: to cement the legacy of Nearest Green for every future generation. Our singular focus is to build a brand so large that the next generation can’t screw it up. At the same time, we’re raising the next generation to take the baton and continue where we leave off. Other companies in our business are solely focused on year-over-year growth — we’re focused on raising the next generation to carry our success forward. It’s something every one of our team members is passionate about and you see it in our overall efforts.
Keeping work/life balance is relatively easy for me since it’s a core principle of our company. My team watches me on social media every week as I take off work on Sundays to eat, drink, and be merry. I’ve observed a day of rest for more than 25 years and encourage my team members to find at least one day a week (two, if they can) to spend time with their families. I encourage them to attend every ball game, recital, and anything else they can with their kids, since you can never get those time capsule moments back.
I always pick up the phone when my husband calls — even if I’m busy with work or in the middle of a big meeting. You can find us at the dinner table every night at 6pm. Now, granted, we usually go back to working in our home offices after dinner, but we make sure we take the time to connect every day. That’s just one of the ways I lead by example and ensure that my family remains my top priority.
In my world, work/life balance means that God and family are my top priorities. Work comes after that, and it’s a fantastic thing across the board. Putting God and family first ensures that my work efficiency is off the charts.