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Historian: Slaves impact in building Kentucky's bourbon, whiskey industry not well documented but runs deep

Bourbon historian Mike Veach found that Black Americans helped the bourbon and whiskey industries more than previously thought.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — America’s development and economic growth are historically tied to Black contributions from the very beginning. On the backs of slaves, the hard work of creating wealth is well-documented.

However, what is not is their hand in the production of bourbon and their role outside of doing the heavy lifting.

Old photos and records are, more often than not, devoid of any depiction or mention of slaves at the original distilleries.

Bourbon historian Mike Veach has seen that for himself researching Black history in bourbon.

“When you look at the slave records, it’s very rarely that they even mention the name of a slave,” Veach said.

But during his time at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, he says he managed to find evidence that, in theory, show some slaves had more specialized skills at distilleries.

Veach recalls an old newspaper that included references of Andrew Jackson and his runaway slave in Tennessee.

“He was advertising in Louisville to find his slave,” Veach said. “One of the things that he mentioned is that this slave was a really good distiller.”

His name was Nearest Green, and as a slave, he taught a young Jack Daniel his unique distilling techniques.

After emancipation, Green was hired as the first master distiller at Jack Daniel’s. When he died, his descendants continued to work at the distillery. They are still there today.

Green goes down in history as the first African-American master distiller.

Today, a new bourbon producer in Louisville claims to have a first as well.

“We do have Kentucky’s first Black master distiller here.”

Chris Yarbrough is talking about his brother Bryson. Along with their other brother Victor, they are the brothers behind Brough Brothers Bourbon.

Recently established in Park Hill, they’re starting as a small batch operation.

“It’s been a long time coming, I’m really excited to have it operational,” Bryson Yarbrough said.

With Brough Brothers Bourbon, the three brothers believe their distillery is literally making history, as well as adding to the story of bourbon, which is likely missing more of its black characters.

“African-Americans always contributed, whether or not that’s been acknowledged,” Victor Yarbrough said. “We can help push that narrative forward in understanding of the history before, with Brough Brothers as well being living history.”

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