Local History

The Unexpected Life of Jack Daniel

By Tabitha Evans Moore | Editor & Publisher

Unlike many brands with a larger-than-life namesake, Jack Daniel existed as a real person, one who walked the streets of Lynchburg. {Photo Courtesy of Jack Daniel’s Distillery}

Honeysuckle garland hangs around the sprawling front porch of a brick mansion situated on a bluff overlooking the East Fork of the Mulberry Creek. In the distance, you can see the lights of Lynchburg two miles away. Mercantile stores, a couple of saloons, a flour mill, a barrel factory, a tannery, a tin shop, and three blacksmiths — all thrive inside the Lynchburg city limits thanks, in part, to their business with the distillery.

Horses and carriages line the estate’s drive and a single Oldsmobile shines in the distance. That’s Jack’s car — the only automobile in town. The cool September night air carries the sound of children playing outside and music playing inside.

As the guests arrive, Elizabeth Motlow (Jack’s sister) and her husband, Connor, offer wide smiles and a beverage from a silver tray — a Tansy Julep (Jack’s favorite drink) or a healthy pour of Old No. 7 neat. Lemonade and cookies for the kids sits on a table out front.

Upstairs in the ballroom, a group of local musicians plays in the far left corner as Nearest Green sits nearby clapping, keeping time with the musicians, and encouraging the dancers. Jack intentionally placed his old friend’s table here. Nearest doesn’t hear so well these days but he loves the pulse of the music. His sons, Eli and George, sit beside him with grinning bemusement.

It looks like the entire town is here and the walls line with smiling faces. As Jasper Newton — long known as Uncle Jack by this point — enters the room his infectious, larger-than-life presence commands the room.

He only stands five foot two but his signature outfit — a wide-brimmed country squire hat and formal, black, knee-length frock coat make him seem much taller. His bright, almond-shaped eye survey his friends and family and a sincere smile breaks out under the broad, full mustache that cascades over his top lip.

Not just a brand but a man

If we could have watched — local beverage in hand — as a Jasper Newton Daniel birthday party unfolded, it might have looked a lot like this.

Unlike many brands based on a personality, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey springs from a real person … one who lived and breathed right here in Lynchburg. You’ve stood where he stood. You’ve seen what he saw.

The story of Jack Daniel leaving home at a young age, living with Dan Call, meeting and learning whiskey-making from Nearest Green, and eventually launching a whiskey brand that would become world famous are now well known facts. What’s less well known is Jasper Newton Daniel or Uncle Jack, the man his family and friends knew during his lifetime. To celebrate his birthday month, I decided to examine the unexpected life of Jasper Newton Daniel the man not Jack Daniel the brand.

“You know Jack was an amazing person, and everything we do today really flows out of what Jack was doing back then,” says unofficial Jack Daniel historian Nelson Eddy, of Finn Partners — Jack Daniel’s marketing and communications firm.

Eddy’s marketing presence at the distillery dates back 33 year to the days of tourism trailblazer and legendary storyteller Roger Brashears and the Postcards from Lynchburg ad campaign creator, Art Hancock.

“The Motlow family hired Art and I considered him a mentor,” says Eddy. “Over the years, they shared files and information with me and that kind of led to this role.”

When we asked him what most people don’t know or might find surprising about Jasper Newton Daniel’s life, he had plenty to say.

Jack was likely born in 1848 not 1850

Though no one can definitively prove the actual birthday of Jack Daniel, September 1848 is a pretty good guess. It’s a date historians came to through deduction using the U.S. Census from those days and local oral histories as their guide.

“We knew the 1850 date on the Jack Daniel statue at the distillery was wrong based on the correct date of his mother’s death,” Eddy says.

Jack’s mother, Lucinda Cook Daniel died in 1849, not 1847, as it states on her tombstone at the Lynchburg Cemetery, according Nearest Green Distillery founder Fawn Weaver in her recent forward to Ben A. Green’s Jack Daniel’s Legacy.

“In piecing together all available information (including the original handwritten diary of Jack’s sister, Louisa (housed at the Albert Gore Research Center), I was able to determine Jack likely wrote a “9” at the end of his mother’s death year when ordering the gravestone marker and the monument mason mistakenly took the “9” for a “7,” she says.

According to Eddy, no one’s ever discovered Jasper Newton Daniels birth certificate and based on the times, it’s not a given that one existed. Birth certificates weren’t a requirement in the United States until after the turn of the century, and they cost money. With 10 children, Jack’s parents may not have filed one to save money, Eddy says.

“But we know that back then, the Census listed a person’s age as of their last birthday. If the June 1850 U.S. Census lists Jack’s as a one year old in September 1849 then his birth year must have been 1848.”

Jack Daniel and Nearest Green weren’t contemporaries

By now, everyone knows the genesis of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey. Jack learned the famous Lincoln County Process from a Black slave on the Dan Call farm by the name of Nathan “Nearest” Green and by all accounts made him the first official Master Distiller when he purchased the Lois still from Call. Around 1884, Jack purchased a piece of property located near Cave Spring Hollow in Lynchburg and soon after, he introduced the world to his Old No. 7 Tennessee Whiskey.

Based on a historical photo from the early days at the Lynchburg distillery, many believe that Jack and Nearest were around the same age but that’s not true. By the time that photo was taken, Nearest had retired from the whiskey making business and returned to live on the Call’s farm. The man seated to Jack Daniel’s left is more likely George Green, Nearest’s son.

Based on this historical photo from the early days of Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, many mistake the man seated to Jack’s right (left in the photo) as Nearest Green. According to family members, that’s actually George Green, Nearest’s son. {Historic photo courtesy of Jack Daniel’s Distillery}

“When Jack sets up at the cave spring in Lynchburg, Nearest stays with Dan Call in Lois on the farm,” says Eddy. “Jack then hires Green’s sons, Eli and George, to work at the distillery and we know from conversations with the Green family that that’s George seated to Jack’s right in that photo.”

“Just after the end of the Civil War, Jack’s relationship with the Green family was such that he sat George to his left in that photo, which would have been a position of honor,” Eddy says. “It was unheard of in that time period.”

Jack likely inherited his love of music from Uncle Nearest

Little Jack Daniel likely thought of Nearest Green like a favorite uncle and it’s well documented that Green’s influence on young Jack went well beyond whiskey making.

According to oral histories, Nearest Green played a mean fiddle and Dan Call often hosted dances on the farm with Nearest playing and Dan calling dances to the delight of the guests. It’s a tradition Jack Daniel continued as he became successful.

Jack Daniel’s home burned several years after his death, but in its day it existed as a mansion overlooking a bluff not far from where the Jack Daniel’s Distillery south processing plant sits now. He built a ballroom on the second floor of the house with a Steinway grand piano in the corner and often hosted community dances there, according to Eddy.

“That mutual love of music is probably the reason why Jack Daniel decides to outfit the Mr. Jack Daniel’s Original Silver Cornet Band,” says Eddy.

This exists as the only known photo of Jack Daniel’s home, which once sat on a bluff overlooking the East Fork of the Mulberry Creek near the old Lynchburg, Fayetteville Turnpike. You can see Jack’s brother-in-law, Connor Motlow, seated on the right side of the porch. The identity of the man holding the Tennessee Walking horse is not known. {Photo Courtesy of Jack Daniel’s Distillery}

Jack Daniel loved speed

Both Eddy and Ben Green’s Legacy book paint a picture of a young Jack Daniel with energy to spare and no time to sit by idly.

From oral histories, we know that young Jack Daniel ran instead of walked nearly everywhere he went. He loved speed and he loved horses, of which he owned many. In fact, Jack Daniel mounted on a horse became a familiar sight not only Moore County but also Coffee County, Flat Creek, and beyond.

Whether he was riding alone, in a wagon delivering whiskey, in a buggy behind speedy horse, Jack Daniel was on the move. Horse riding eventually developed into experiencing horse-power as Jack Daniel was rumored to have owned the very first automobile in the county.

“It makes sense,” says Eddy. “He would have been the wealthiest man in the county and he has a love of speed.”

Jack Daniel lived as a true, southern gentleman

According to Eddy, Jasper Newton Daniel lived much like a Gentleman Jack of his time. He loved to joke and had a great sense of humor. He courted (though unsuccessfully) and threw great parties.

“He was a genuinely good guy in an industry filled with unsavory characters,” Weaver states in her Legacy preface.

He also exuded a certain dapper sense of style: formal, black knee-length frock coat, fawn-colored, silk-lined vest, broad tie, trimmed mustache and goatee, topped with a country squire hat. Even if you had not known who he was exactly, he would have stood out in a crowd.

Though he left school early, Jack Daniel received an education thanks to the persistence of Dan Call’s wife, Mary Jane.

Many people think of Jack Daniel as uneducated, but we know that not to be true, says Eddy. He loved to read and cherished his books — writing his name in them several times so that they’d always find their way home.

“One book we know he owned because it exists today with his name written in it is a copy of Ben Hur, a book written by a Lew Wallace a former Union general in 1880,” says Eddy.

Known around town as The Donations Man, Jack Daniel financed many a church project, farm, businesses, and family emergency. He was known to give lavish birthday and wedding presents and often loaned money even though he knew there was little chance he’d be repaid. It’s a local legend that Jack Daniel financed every church in Moore County — save the one that refused money from that “whiskey maker.”

“It is said that he would have died a poor man if his nephews, Lem and Tom Motlow, had not helped him conserve some resources,” Green writes in the Legacy book.

In the end, Eddy says Jack Daniel lived more like Apple’s Steve Jobs than inventor Thomas Edison.

“He didn’t invent whiskey making or the Lincoln County Process,” says Eddy. “Charcoal mellowing was just the ways things were done back then and it was likely brought over from Africa as a slave tradition.”

Eddy says 15 other people in Moore County were making whiskey at the same time Jack Daniel made whiskey and they all used the Lincoln County Process. Jack Daniel just did it better. He changed out his charcoal vats often resulting in an award-winning product known for its “pureness and exceptional quality.”

It’s the same product (though slightly lower proofed) made the same way that sits on liquor store shelves today. So, as September rolls around, grab a bottle of the original Old No. 7, pour yourself a generous glass, and a raise a toast to Jasper Newton Daniel — a Lynchburg original. •

{The Lynchburg Times is the only independently owned and operated newspaper in Lynchburg, Tennessee. We cover Metro Moore County government, Jack Daniel’s Distillery, Nearest Green Distillery, Tims Ford State Park, Motlow State Community College, Moore County High School, Moore County Middle School, Lynchburg Elementary, Raider Sports, plus regional and state news.}

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