Five years ago, when the story of Nearest Green was revealed to a national audience, it drew all sorts of attention. The public was fascinated to learn that Jack Daniel was actually taught the art of distilling whiskey by an enslaved man who had been largely lost to history for more than a century. At the time, many opinions were expressed about how important it was to shine a light on the unrecognized historical Black contributions to the industry.
Another pertinent issue to examine is the current paucity of BIPOC professionals in the world of distilling today. Acknowledging history is all well and good, but addressing the difficulties associated with access to capital seems even more important to me.
So I’m delighted to see that Fawn Weaver, the founder of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, has decided to do exactly that by creating a remarkable $50 million venture capital fund dedicated to investing in BIPOC- and female-owned spirit brands. The Uncle Nearest Venture Fund was intentionally announced on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, an event that has been estimated to have cost Black-owned local businesses $2 million — that’s in addition, of course, to the loss of lives.
“On June 1, 1921, an entire community of wealthy and successful African Americans was wiped out in a matter of hours,” says Weaver. “We are talking about 35 square blocks known as Black Wall Street. As an African American, learning about that history broke my heart because we, as a people, were really onto something in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We were lifting one another up and creating wealth within our own community, and then showing others how to do it for themselves. We cannot go back and undo the past, but I do believe we have full power over our future, and that recreating a Black Wall Street of sorts within the spirits industry is a great place to start.”
To commemorate those losses, the Uncle Nearest Venture Fund announced two separate $2 million investments in Black-owned spirits companies: Jack From Brooklyn Inc. and Equiano Rum Company, the world’s first Afro-Caribbean rum founded by Ian Burrell and Aaisha Dadral. The “Jack” in Jack from Brooklyn is Jackie Summers, a powerful voice in the industry (and a great follow on Twitter) who created Sorel Liqueur, a real favorite among bartenders. Unfortunately, the product has been off the market for years now due to Summers’ lack of access to capital.
“Most people don’t know how expensive it is to create and grow a premium spirit brand in America,” said Summers. “I wasn’t willing to compromise on the quality, and I did everything I could to raise the money to keep Sorel alive, including pitching the brand to the CEOs of some of the most well-known spirit conglomerates. Every single one turned me down. Many do not know this, but I went homeless for about 18 months as I pounded the pavement to continue growing my business. I never gave up because I knew it was special and that one day, someone would be willing to invest in it and in me. The moment the Uncle Nearest Venture Fund agreed to do so, we were ready — we’d only been waiting on capital.”
With this injection of funding, Summers plans to bring Sorel back to the market over the course of the next year. Weaver has put together an impressive and diverse board of directors including Mark McCallum, former chief brands officer for Brown-Forman; Lee Moulton, head of partnerships for Google; and Carolyn Feinstein, former CMO for Dropbox. This group will continue to seek out worthy benefits for future investments and do their part to push the industry forward. I can’t think of a better way to honor the legacy of Nearest Green.
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