I’ve never written a preface to an article before now, but I think this one needs it.
Uncle Nearest – as a brand, as the people who represent it – were early additions to the Whiskey Ring family. Fawn Weaver and Victoria Eady Butler both came on the Podcast when I was getting fewer than 50 downloads an episode, Fawn for a retrospective with Clay Risen and Victoria for a discussion of the distillery and its operations.
When I visited Kentucky and Tennessee in August 2022, I visited Uncle Nearest Distillery before I went to Jack Daniel’s, prioritizing that visit over the latter. It was important to see the rebuilding of a legacy, something that simply vibrates around the grounds. Everything from the candy floss and mountain dew (lowercase intentional) at the “snack stand” to the artifacts that Nearest Green himself might have worked with make you understand: this is a place imbued with purpose, with legacy and planning infused at every step, sometimes literally.
It was a wonderful trip, truly.
After that trip, I was fortunate to get in touch with the PR folks and start receiving bottles to review. These have all been sent free of editorial constraint, and I hope after this article I will still be on their list. I thank the Uncle Nearest team for their generosity, their willingness to talk, and – most of all – for understanding that this article and the conversations around it are from a place of constructive criticism and in search of knowledge.
Without further ado, let’s dive into the recent saga of Uncle Nearest’s whiskey labels.
No Shame in Sourcing
Since its founding, Uncle Nearest Distillery (also called Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey) has sourced its whiskeys while building up its own stocks. The first few years of production were contract distilled by others in Tennessee, then blended by the Uncle Nearest team. From that method came the 1884, 1856, and 1820 editions, all good whiskeys in their own right.
The team had no interest in hiding the sourcing or contract distilling; there was no need to. A brand new distillery can’t have 4+ year old whiskey, so why bother. Besides, it was about building the brand and retelling Nearest Green’s story. The whiskey, in some ways, was ancillary to that. While their own recipe was aging, the story provided notoriety, cash flow, visitors, and everything else they would need for the time being.
Having visited the distillery, I’ve now seen the still in place. They hadn’t started distilling on site yet, but it was imminent. That whiskey, of course, will be several years in the barrel before being brought out, but in the meantime more and more of the Uncle Nearest distillate is taking on its own character independent of their original sourcing partner.
Walking through the first rickhouse – a repurposed stable – I saw the barrels that held their future whiskeys, and it was promising as hell. In a way, the use of a former stable – stone exteriors with wood frame interiors – is ideal for the Tennessee climate. The guide told me that some of those barrels were slated for as long as 2031, so there’s plenty to love.
Since their first bottle, and through the recent mid-2022 redesign, the stories and information on the bottle never hid what was inside it. Every single one read “Distilled in TN,” and each had a different facet of Green’s story to tell.
Then came the rye.
Starting Off On The Wrong Foot
The first rye to come out was the Uncle Nearest Uncut/Unfiltered Straight Rye Whiskey. I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew it wasn’t a Tennessee rye based on the sell sheets and press around it, but that’s where the confusion started.
As Fawn and Victoria will both point out, Tennessee is not the place to grow rye. Corn, yes. Barley, maybe. Rye? Nope. If it grows it all – and that’s a big “if” – the rye stalks are likely to fall over, mold in the humid warmth, and be unusable. So right from the start, the Uncle Nearest team knew they’d have to look elsewhere for their rye. Not many places could supply their desired volumes, and certainly nobody in Tennessee.
So, they went to New York. Kind of.
Here is the front label for the Uncle Nearest Uncut/Unfiltered Straight Rye Whiskey:
Let’s quickly address the front label. I didn’t catch this at first, but isn’t it odd that it reads “Uncut/Unfiltered Straight Whiskey” and not “…Straight Rye Whiskey?” Sure, it says Uncle Nearest Rye above that, but in subsequent labels for the 100º and Single Barrel editions, Rye is part of the cartouched subtitle.
There’s no requirement that the label must be in the arrangement that would make more sense to me, but it’s still… odd.
Then there’s Victoria’s quote:
“My great-great-grandfather was known for his whiskey filtration method [what would become the Lincoln County Process]. But this 100% rye is so spectacular, we dared not cut or filter it.”
So much of what we do as reviewers and tasters is in the feeling, and this feels forced. Nearest Green left a huge legacy, but rye was not a part of it other than a small percent of the mashbill. It just isn’t a Tennessee thing. One need only look to Jack Daniel’s, where – despite being the largest American whiskey producer – they didn’t introduce a rye until 2012 (they were founded in 1865, for reference).
I get that this has the Nearest Green name on it and you want to have branding consistency, but it doesn’t feel quite right. It reads like “my great-great-grandfather did this on product A, but we won’t on this product because it’s B.” This, to me, was where I started growing wary. Uncle Nearest Whiskey does such an incredible job at branding and consistency and story, from the whiskey on the shelf to every conceivable part of their on-site experience. This feels forced and misaligned.
Which brings me to the back label:
It’s worth writing out what the label says:
“UNCUT AND UNFILTERED, THIS IS STRAIGHT RYE WHISKEY DONE RIGHT. THE FUNNY THING ABOUT TENNESSEE FARMERS, WE CAN’T GROW RYE WORTH A DAMN. A GRAIN SO EASILY GROWN IN OTHER STATES, GETS CHOKED UP IN OUR SOIL. SO, WE WENT OUT TO FIND THE BEST STRAIGHT RYE AND BROUGHT IT BACK HOME TO REST IN USED UNCLE NEAREST BARRELS. WHERE DID WE FINALLY FIND IT? NEW YORK, BABY!
BORN IN THE NORTH, THEN RAISED FOR AT LEAST FOUR YEARS IN THE BIG CITY, BEFORE MOVING TO GOD’S COUNTRY FOR SOME WELL-DESERVED REST.”
Then, at the very bottom: PRODUCT OF CANADA. Alarm bells started going off.
I tried working it out, giving the team the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it was a Canadian rye that they found in New York then brought it to Tennessee. Maybe it was a label error. Where in the “Big City” (read: New York) did this age? I know most of the distilleries within the city limits, and I don’t know a single one that has the storage capacity for these volumes of whiskey in addition to their own stocks.
First bell: where did this actually come from?
Second bell: where could it have been aged in New York?
Next bell: how was this aged, and how could this possibly be labeled as “straight”? It’s Canadian distillate brought into America to age. Was it aged in new cooperage at first then finished in used Uncle Nearest barrels? If so, wouldn’t that have to be labeled the way Angel’s Envy is (straight whiskey finished in another cask)? If it was unaged distillate put directly into used cooperage, doesn’t that mean it couldn’t be called rye? Certainly not a straight one. Then, if it’s moved from state-to-state, how does it maintain its “straight” status?
So many questions, all of which have significant importance to the label’s accuracy… and its legality.
So I did what any writer should do: I reached out and asked. I don’t know everything about whiskey – far from it – so why should I assume my conclusions or questions are all valid?
A Quick Note on Taste
Before this gets totally down the rabbit hole, I will tell you what I thought of the whiskey taste-wise. This applies to not only the initial Uncut/Unfiltered Rye, but also the 100º and Single Barrel versions.
When I was in a phase exploring Japanese whiskies, I came across Takamine 8-Year-Old, a koji-fermented whisky after the style and traditions of Joichi Takamine, who tried to bring koji fermentation to America 35 to 40 years before Masataka Taketsuru set foot in Scotland. For an in-depth look at koji fermentation, take a look at my review of the Takamine here.
If you’re a fan of Lock, Stock, and Barrel age-stated Ryes: surprise! You’ve also had a koji-fermented whisky, this one distilled at Alberta. Just like different yeast strains impart certain flavor characteristics, koji fermentation is almost immediately noticeable. The saccharification of grains with koji develops compounds that come out as scents and flavors unique to that method.
Upon first taste, I could swear that the Uncut/Unfiltered was from the same koji-fermented stocks. As it turns out, it’s from British Columbia (B.C.), but I wouldn’t find that out until the Single Barrel release’s label. It tasted malty and not at all like a rye, even accounting for distillery-to-distillery variations. Multiple fellow reviewers I surveyed felt the same.
So, you have a Canadian rye that tastes like a malt whisky and comes from British Columbia being sold as Uncle Nearest Rye. It’s not a bad whiskey, and some undoubtably will like it (it made several top 10 lists at the end of 2022), it’s just not for me.
Of course, nothing about that is at all illegal. It does, however, raise multiple questions, some of which I’ll go into detail on below. The one that I’ll deal with here is simply this: were there truly no other rye-producing distilleries in the United States from which Uncle Nearest could source their product? It just feels… wrong. It feels wrong that Nearest Green’s name is on a bottle of Canadian whisky (or, to be more legally accurate, Canadian distillate).
The Question That Sparked Trouble
In summary, there was a strong response from the Uncle Nearest team that everything was reviewed multiple times by the TTB, that all labels were fully in line with both legal and regulatory requirements, and the original source of the whiskey could not be revealed due to an NDA.
Initially, I was shocked by the strong response. While I try my best to always maintain independence and objectivity, I do think highly of the Uncle Nearest team and was grateful not only to have both Fawn and Victoria on the podcast, but also to get to try these products. I was asking questions in search of knowledge, but a nerve had clearly been struck.
My main question, ultimately, went unanswered behind those protestations: regardless of legality and TTB approval, isn’t it misleading to say “[we found it] in New York, Baby!” and that it was aged in the Big Apple when it’s a product of Canada and there’s no evidence it was aged in the city? Not everyone is as big a whiskey nerd as I am, but my guess is that if you’re reading this and you’ve made it this far, you’d be confused by that label as well.
Plus, consider this: the TTB is not infallible. They go through literally hundreds of labels a day, and many of the errant labels that get through are only identified as such because of people looking at those labels through the public COLA database. Most of the time – perhaps the vast majority of the time – the TTB is correct. Not 100%.
In the span of a few days, I was in contact directly with Fawn, with Uncle Nearest’s liquor lawyer, the PR firm involved, and I’m sure others who were checking things behind the scenes. I knew asking these questions and pushing back on the defenses risked my relationship with the brand, but for me it was important. If the brand was to claim this grand legacy built on unearthing the truth of the industry, their labels and products had to be held to the same degree of scrutiny. I suspect Nearest Green would expect no less.
What Does the Law Say?
A byproduct of the three-tier system’s complexity is that we nerdy drinkers can miss an update to our dearly-held regulations. One of these changes, in fact, is how Uncle Nearest Uncut/Unfiltered Rye (or is it Uncle Nearest Rye Uncut/Unfiltered Straight Whiskey?) retained its “straight” status:
Quoting Mr. John Messinger, Senior Attorney at Lehrman Beverage Law LLC and advisor to Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey:
“Prior to May 2020, TTB required all 27 CFR 5.22(b)(1)(i) and (iii) whiskies (e.g. bourbon whiskey, straight rye whiskey, etc.) that were finished in anything other than a charred new oak barrel to be classified as distilled spirits specialty (DSS) products. DSS products must be labeled with a truthful and adequate statement of composition, disclosing the base spirit(s), natural or artificial flavors, artificial colors, artificial sweeteners, and/or any specific ingredient/process – including barrel/cask finishing – that disqualifies the base spirit(s) from retaining its specific standard of identity listed in 27 CFR 5.22 (now 27 CFR 5.141 – 5.166). When the modernized Part 5 (distilled spirits) and Part 7 (malt beverages) labeling regulations took effect on May 4, 2020, TTB changed their policy regarding barrel/cask finished whiskies. As of that point forward, any whiskey under 27 CFR 5.22(b)(1)(i) and (iii) (now 27 CFR 5.143(c)(2), (4), and (5)) finished in casks/barrels, except for bourbon whiskey/straight bourbon whiskey, will be classified as a e.g. rye whiskey, wheat whiskey, etc., instead of as a DSS product. Thus, Uncle Nearest Straight Rye Whiskey, which is aged in charred new oak barrels for at least four years before it is transferred to used Uncle Nearest Whiskey barrels, is correctly labeled as a straight rye whiskey, and is not required to disclose any additional barrel finishing as part of a statement of composition.”
You might need to read that a few times – I sure did – but the gist is this: due to a change in the regulations around cask finishing as of May 2020, Uncle Nearest Rye could still be considered “straight” whereas prior to that date it could not. Bourbon whiskey and straight bourbon whiskey were exempted because there are clauses unique to that class due to bourbon’s geographic indication (it can only be made in the US), clauses that don’t apply to any other spirit category under 27 CFR 5.
So there I was, unsure of where I stood with people I had considered professional friends and with a brand I respected. Thankfully, all turned out well, and another bottle arrived a few weeks later.
The First Label Change
After my initial shock (and, in full transparency, relief) in receiving another bottle passed, I got down to business by putting the new bottle – Uncle Nearest Rye 100º – side-by-side with the first bottle.
Here are the front and back labels:
Notice the first change: Rye now appears in the cartouche under the blue RYE title, for the first time putting “STRAIGHT RYE WHISKEY” together.
Victoria’s quote, too, has changed:
“My great-great-grandfather aways did everything with excellence, and he would be so proud of this premium rye.”
Otherwise, the label remains the same from the Uncut/Unfiltered version.
Then we get to the back label, whose story has changed dramatically. In fact, there is no story, really, not compared to the Uncut/Unfiltered label.
“THIS WAS A LOFTY EXPERIMENT THAT WORKED. THE RESULTS OF THIS 100-PERCENT RYE MASH BILL, MATURED IN USED UNCLE NEAREST BARRELS BEFORE BEING BOTTLED AT 100-PROOF, KEEPS WITH OUR TRADITION OF CREATING SOME OF THE MOST AWARDED WHISKEYS (sic) IN THE WORLD. THIS IS RYE WHISKEY, ELEVATED, HITTING EVERY MARK, WITH ITS RICH FLAVOR PROFILE, INCREDIBLE BALANCE OF SPICES, AND EXTRAORDINARILY SMOOTH FINISH.”
The bottom of the label remains the same, reading:
“PRODUCT OF CANADA/AGED IN NEW YORK AND TENNESSEE/AGED & BOTTLED BY NEAREST GREEN DISTILLERY, SHELBYVILLE, TN”
This is, then, the same whiskey as was in the first rye release, just proofed down to 100º. As with the first, I found it malty and not at all recognizable as a rye.
It’s worth nothing the change in back label wording. Gone are any mention of finding it in New York or aging it in the Big City. Even a reference to it coming from “The North” is gone. In fact, other than noting this has also been aged in used Uncle Nearest Barrels, there’s no mention of the process; it reads instead like a shelf talker, something easily digested by a reader grabbing the bottle off the shelf but not actually telling you anything.
This bottle was received in November, and because of the label change (and my initial alarm bells about the Uncut/Unfiltered label) I decided to dig a bit on the COLA website. Between my initial outreach in September about the first bottle and receiving this 100º bottle, there were no fewer than six label changes sent to the TTB. Six proposed changes in about a month is unheard of, at least to me. Some of the changes were marginal (slight color shifts) but some were on the wording. You can look for yourself – just search “Uncle Nearest” in the keyword finder with a date range of October and you’ll get at least half a dozen results, all relating to the rye. That’s just plain odd. It’s a case of “there’s not necessarily a fire, but damn there’s smoke.”
Next up, the Single Barrel.
The Second Label Change
The Single Barrel arrived in mid-to-late December, with a beautiful royal blue front and back label and gold lettering. Aesthetically, I can’t argue with the change; it is striking and elegant.
Bottled at a solid 121º, about a point-and-a-half higher than the Uncut/Unfiltered Rye, this has the heat and spice that are hallmarks of a whiskey at that proof. Unfortunately, it tasted no more like a rye than its two predecessors and remained a malty proof bomb.
Now here’s the fun part: what was on the back label?
“BOTTLED AT FULL PROOF, THIS SINGLE BARREL WHISKEY IS WHAT OTHER RYES WORK HARD TO GROW UP TO BE. TENNESSEE DOES A LOT OF THINGS WELL; GROWING RYE IS NOT ONE OF THEM. SO, WE SOUGHT OUT THE BEST FROM OTHER STATES. EACH OF OUR INAUGURAL BARRELS HAILS FROM NEW YORK, WHERE THEY AGED IN NEW AMERICAN OAK FOR A MINIMUM OF FOUR YEARS AFTER A SHORT STINT IN B.C. WHERE THEY WERE BORN.
THESE BARRELS BEGAN AS A LOFTY EXPERIMENT IN 2017. WAS IT POSSIBLE TO CREATE AN ULTRA-SMOOTH WHISKEY, WITH FLAVOR GALORE, MADE FROM 100% RYE? THAT WAS THE QUESTION. THE ANSWER TOOK AWHILE, BUT WAS WELL WORTH THE WAIT: HELL YEAH.”
And with that, we have an answer: this Product of Canada (the bottom of the label remains the same) hails from B.C., British Columbia, and was aged (and, notably, found) in New York before being aged further in Tennessee. Gone still are references to the “Big City.”
The front label’s quote is different, too:
“My great-great-grandfather mastered Tennessee Whiskey. This full proof single barrel rye continues his legacy of excellence.”
The quote still doesn’t match up. Nearest Green mastered Tennessee Whiskey, including what would become the Lincoln County Process. This whiskey is neither from Tennessee nor has it gone through the process Nearest mastered, so what in the world does the quote have to do with the whiskey?
I come away from tasting the three ryes with this rant:
Why was a rye necessary at all? There are plenty of Tennessee Whiskey avenues to explore without crossing the border of Tennessee let alone the 49th Parallel. Green would likely never have produced a rye whiskey since, as the Uncle Nearest team points out on multiple product back labels, Tennessee can’t grow rye worth a damn (he could have made one with a minor amount of rye in the mashbill, but that’s the limit).
Even if he did produce a rye in his lifetime, wouldn’t an American-distilled rye that tastes recognizably like a rye be the goal in the here and now? We’re not talking about highlighting a varietal like Rosen, Danko, Ryman, or even regional styles like Monongahela or Maryland-style rye. We’re just talking “what rye would make the most sense in the context of Nearest Green’s legacy,” and I can’t come up with a scenario in which the rye in these bottles is the correct answer.
Where Does One Go From Here
So, with three ryes under their belt, none of them from the US or tasting (to me) like a rye, and significant linguistic overhauls of the back labels, where does Uncle Nearest go from here?
I still love the brand, and for what it’s worth the Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey I received in between these bottles I thought was excellent and had identifiable Uncle Nearest character to it. I don’t want to harp on issues with labels simply to get some more views; it is genuinely for the pursuit of knowledge and transparency. We likely will never know from which British Columbia distillery this came from due to NDAs, and in some ways it isn’t that important.
The biggest question to me is this: what is Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey’s motivation for bringing a rye to market, and if they are to stay on that path, will they shift to a rye that in any way links into the Nearest Green legacy? Could they import rye across the state line and distill their own? Cascade Hollow is now doing that after years and years of their rye coming from MGP, and they’re doing it just fine. Several Tennessee-based distilleries sell ryes, even if the grain isn’t grown in Tennessee, and grain provenance has never been a significant factor in the Uncle Nearest story anyway.
Will they be more open about the product coming from Canada? Will a re-labeling take place for the next round of Uncut/Unfiltered and 100º versions that is closer to the more transparent, more truthful, less confusing back label of the Single Barrel? Will I ever hear anything from the Uncle Nearest team again after this is posted?
Many, many questions to be answered. For the moment, I’ll content myself with the Uncle Nearest Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey, which I really did enjoy. I want this brand to be what it promises to be; if wanting that leads to backlash, then perhaps it’s worth the backlash to ask the questions.