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Weaver talks investing, management

Uncle Nearest co-founder speaks at Chamber Luncheon

By ZOË HAGGARD - zhaggard@t-g.com
Posted 1/22/22

At the 74th Annual Chamber Luncheon, guest speaker Keith Weaver, co-founder and board member of Uncle Nearest Whiskey, talked about updates on their “fastest growing” independent spirit company.

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Weaver talks investing, management

Uncle Nearest co-founder speaks at Chamber Luncheon


At the 74th Annual Chamber Luncheon, guest speaker Keith Weaver, co-founder and board member of Uncle Nearest Whiskey, talked about updates on their “fastest growing” independent spirit company. 

Keith and his wife Fawn got the idea to start Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey in 2016 when they read an article in the New York Times international edition that talked about Nearest Green, the enslaved man who is said to have taught Jack Daniels how to make whiskey.  

"Most of the facts in that article were wrong,” Weaver said. “And because we couldn’t keep our little, crazy business minds at bay, we dove deeply into the article.” Ironically, the couple was reading about this little-known tale about a Tennessee man while on a trip in Singapore.  

Fawn Weaver was inspired to take the story of Nearest Green further. Keith admitted he was a little apprehensive at first. “But she is a woman with resolve,” Weaver joked.  

Traveling to Lynchburg, they discovered that what was “old” news about Nearest Green to the Jack Daniels region was “new” news to the world outside of Southern Middle Tennessee. “We didn’t have to uncover anything; it was right there,” Weaver said.  

After buying the Dan Call Farm—the original site of the No. 7 Distillery and where Nearest Green lived—the Los Angeles natives made Shelbyville their home. 

By 2017, their whiskey became the fastest growing independent spirit company in the world. Weaver said they are now worth around $60 million.  

“We’re one of the fastest growing brands to go from idea to market,” he said.  

But, Weaver added, faster isn’t necessarily good.  

Challenges and changes 

Even since starting Uncle Nearest in 2017, Weaver still holds his position as executive vice president in global policy and external affairs at Sony Pictures. 

It’s a full-time schedule but Weaver still makes time to help oversee the many projects going on at the Nearest Green Distillery.  

Admitting he and his wife knew nothing about the spirits business in the beginning, Weaver said they knew about business, marketing, authorships and entertainment, which helped them to grow the brand.  

The Uncle Nearest team has learned how to distribute their product. “Which is very difficult to do because most of the distributors want you to be successful already before they take you on,” Weaver said.   

But mostly, their brand has grown because of the story of Nearest Green. “It’s positive, it’s mutual respect, it’s love, it’s community...And then the whiskey’s good, too,” he added.  

“We go nutty with historians...Every part of Nearest Green Distillery that we see or read about, or the brand—there's one exception—is, even though it sounds like marketing-driven prose, it’s all substantiated with documentation and research,” Weaver said. That one exception is the brand expression on their whiskey called “1856.” They believe that’s the year Nearest perfected Tennessee whiskey, but Weaver said it’s actually “made up.” They don’t know the actual date, Weaver said. 

Still, success has allowed them to revamp Sand Creek Farm, the location of the distillery in Shelbyville on Highway 231, by turning the old horse sales arena into their museum and welcome center. 

Behind the welcome center is going to be the “Humble Baron,” which will be the longest bar in the world at 525 linear feet. With their backgrounds in entertainment, the Weavers said there will a performance stage at the back on the venue and outside, where they hope to “rival Nashville” beginning in the middle of 2022. The second location of Barrel House BBQ, located in Lynchburg, will also be located at the Nearest Green Distillery.   

At the Chamber Lunch, Weaver explained Uncle Nearest has a development plan stretched over the next decade. With 100 employees globally, they need office spaces. And to store future whiskey, which is aged around seven years, they’ll need more rickhouses. They also hope to begin production on site at the Nearest Green Distillery this year.  

“It’s crazy—crazy good. So, we’re really excited to be in this community,” Weaver said. 

However, supply chain slowdowns and Covid’s uncertainties have presented some challenges.  

“I must say it’s really fun doing this during a pandemic and among supply chain shortages,” Weaver said.

He explained issues like how the paper shortage has affected Uncle Nearest’s ability to get labels, while the glass shortage (due in part for the need for glass vials to hold the COVID-19 vaccine) have driven up costs of glass. And since their corks are from Portugal, delayed shipping and receiving has caused production to also delay.  

The slowdown in production, and the whiskey’s popularity, has made Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey hard to find on store shelves, according to Weaver. 

This is especially difficult with forecasting consumer wants.  

“When you’re in the spirits industry, you’re looking at a very long timeline—five, 10, 15 years. What will my consumer want 10 years from now? The real answer is ‘I have no idea’...So when distillers get that wrong...they have two problems: one, they got it wrong; and then, they have storage issues,” Weaver said.  

Excess inventory is sold “quietly” through intermediaries (i.e., brokers), Weaver said. “So, when you’re doing what we’re doing, you have to start that way. And then as you see success, which we’ve seen, then you find out who you can get to produce your product,” Weaver said. 

For Uncle Nearest, they are part of the Tennessee Distilling Group, based in Columbia, Tenn., helps Uncle Nearest produce their product.  

At the Chamber Lunch, Weaver dispelled the rumor that Uncle Nearest was buying Jack Daniels. Weaver assured the two companies—like Nearest and Jack over a century ago—are friends. The two whiskey companies have started the Nearest and Jack Advancement Initiative, a foundation started in 2020 and co-funded by the two companies. Its goal is to create a “pipeline” for spirits companies to find “diverse” employees as well as help build other companies, Weaver said.  

Other Chamber news 

The new president of the Shelbyville Bedford Chamber of Commerce was announced to be Josh Lynch of United Communications. He will be replacing Bill Rich as president.  

Three new members were also inducted into the Chamber, including Ashley House, co-owner of Enchanted Bridal Boutique; Elisabeth Thomspon, Senior Manager of Duck River EMC Administrative Services; and Jenny Hunt, member and officer for the Bell Buckle Chamber of Commerce.