Uncle Nearest CEO Fawn Weaver is Creating A Pipeline For More Blacks to Enter the Whiskey Industry
Photo Credit: Instagram / @unclenearest
Fawn Weaver is committed. As the first Black woman to lead the world’s first major spirits brand on record to commemorate an African-American, she has dedicated resources to bringing more people of color into the industry.
In June, the Jack Daniel’s Distillery and the Nearest Green Distillery announced the Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative, an accelerated apprenticeship program designed to promote diversity and Black leadership in the American whiskey industry. Weaver is also working with the two Tennessee distilleries to create the Nearest Green School of Distilling, whose STEM-based curriculum is being developed in partnership with Motlow State Community College.
Weaver says the diversity problem results from many things, including representation, qualifications, and cultural beliefs. But while other spirits brands tap celebrity ambassadors to generate in-house brand interest, Weaver doesn’t believe that’s the answer to increasing diversity.
“That’s not what we need. What we need are people that are at the highest level who are willing to be visible, that are going to bring people into master distiller roles,” she said. “When you start putting people in a master distiller role that are Black, our people know that the position is possible for us to reach.”
Fawn Weaver spoke with AfroTech about the obstacles to getting Blacks into the whiskey business, the Nearest Green School of Distillery, and why her legacy doesn’t matter (to her at least).
AfroTech: What attracted you to the spirit industry initially?
Fawn Weaver: It wasn’t the spirits industry that I was going after. The outside world sees us as a whiskey company, but those in the company know we’re just utilizing whiskey to cement a man’s legacy. We are a purpose-driven company and the fastest-growing independent American spirit brand in U.S. history. That doesn’t matter for us because of the numbers; that counts for us because we are on track with cementing his name so that future generations know it.
AfroTech: How does The Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative help to cement that legacy as well?
Fawn Weaver: If you’re outside looking in at American whiskey, you will look at it and think that it is predominantly white male intentionally. Well, I’m in it, and one of the things that I discovered very early on is that we don’t get very many African Americans [to apply]. And when we do, they’re not qualified. That’s the first problem.
In the American whiskey industry, we’ve got three to four problems that we have to battle with to get African Americans to want to come into the industry because every African American I know in this industry who is at a high-level position fell into the industry. That wasn’t what we were trying to do. The only person I’ve ever spoken to that’s Black in this industry that chose it intentionally is Ebonie Major over at Diageo, the blender for Bulleit. But generally speaking, African Americans are not going to choose an industry in which our ancestors were enslaved—cotton, tobacco, American whiskey,
Uncle Nearest is the first time you have a heritage story that doesn’t center on a white male. So why do people of color want to go into an industry that’s heritage driven and everybody’s heritage centers white male? That’s the second problem. The third problem is that African Americans are a very religious group of people, whether we truly abide. Our parents, our grandparents, raised us as either Christian or Muslim, and both Christianity and Muslim rail against alcohol, so going into the alcohol industry is not something that we would consider a virtuous career. And the fourth thing, we don’t see African Americans in power in this industry. And so we’re not going to come in at the bottom if we don’t see and get the top. So the issues to getting more Blacks into the business are bigger, deeper.
AfroTech: How do you create solutions for these problems and get more Black people inside the industry?
Fawn Weaver: We have to make being in this industry cool, we have to make it feel virtuous for us. Because I think Black people’s unwillingness to enter into the industry is an entirely subconscious bias. It does not make sense that I, an African American woman leading a legacy brand centered on an African American man, receive applications from white people 99.9% of the time.
My team is unbelievably diverse, not even just for this industry, just period. But every single Black person I have in my company wasn’t qualified for the positions they were in when I put them in. We had to train them. But imagine the kind of commitment that takes when you are a startup.
AfroTech: The new initiative seems designed for that training; to create a pipeline of diverse people into Uncle Nearest and the whiskey industry.
Fawn Weaver: Exactly. One of the main pillars is the Leadership Acceleration Program, which offers apprenticeships. And for the past year, I’ve worked with Jack Daniel’s on creating the Nearest Green School of Distilling. I’ve also worked with the president of Motlow College, the fastest-growing college here in Tennessee, explaining to him the challenges I’m having with getting Black people to apply. I told him that we need to create the pipeline and emphasize it as a STEM program so that people can view distilling as a virtuous career option. The whole point of it is to make people in STEM excited about this industry. People of color and women specifically, because full inclusivity means white people, too.
I asked if Melvin Keebler—an African American and number two at the Jack Daniel’s distillery—and Sherrie Moore, who ironically hired Keebler at Jack Daniels when she was the head of whiskey operations over there, to write the curriculum. Once they approved it, it goes on to the accrediting body for approval, and there will finally be an accredited degree in distilling in the name of Nearest Green.
AfroTech: What is the matriculation process through the Leadership Acceleration Program?
Fawn Weaver: If you take, for instance, our head distiller, she began with four to six months of manufacturing certifications on July 20. If she gets every single accreditation, that’s already bolstering her resumé. After, she starts at the American Craft Spirits Association at Catoctin Creek in Virginia with the master distiller, Becky Harris. Then she goes from shadowing Becky to shadowing Sagamore Spirit distillers, and then she goes from there to following the master distiller at Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, and Kentucky Peerless. Lastly, she will shadow the master distillers at Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel, Nearest Green Distillery, and Green Nelson Greenbrier. By the time she finishes, there won’t be a master distiller more skilled than her because she would have learned from the best across the board. All these master distillers are taking the time to raise the next Black master distiller, and I don’t know any other industry that will come together like this.
And that’s just one apprenticeship track. We’ve got the Business Incubation Program (BIP), which will provide access to top marketing firms, branding executives, expanded distribution networks, plus other assets and opportunities to grow their spirits businesses. Each apprenticeship is a microwave version of typically years-long processes while following the best of the best at the top distilleries in America.
AfroTech: Now, for you as an investor and owner, a Black woman, how important is this role for you and your legacy?
Fawn Weaver: I don’t care about my legacy. It’s about Uncle Nearest’s legacy. I don’t want to confuse that. The only reason you even see me in public is that I love having conversations with the press. But I didn’t want to distract from Nearest. Immediately when I heard the story, I was attached to it. I think it’s, you know, one of that little known Black stories that we should be screaming to the mountain tops. So I understand wanting to amplify that story. I didn’t come into this industry to cement my name. I entered into this industry to help cement Nearest’s name well after I’m gone, and more diverse, talented people will help do that. If nobody remembers me, I don’t care. That’s how I’m wired, and I’m okay with that.