In 2020, we are reminded of the historical stigma of slavery, and the lasting economic hardships and prejudice its legacy has on communities. It seems timely to turn the pages of history to examine the role slavery played in the development of American whiskey. Recent revelations by Fawn Weaver on the influential and collaborative relationship between Jack Daniel and Dan Call’s slave, Nathan ‘Nearest’ Green, also provides an exceptional story of the vital role African Americans played in the development of American whiskey.
Before the Green-Daniel partnership began in antebellum Tennessee, in neighbouring Kentucky, a quarter of the population were slaves. At that time, 28 per cent of white families owned slaves and half of those had more than 20 slaves. Kentucky’s largest slave market, Cheapside in Lexington, was in the centre of the bluegrass region. At Cheapside, families were broken up, valued according to health, age and sex, with thousands of slaves ‘sold down the river’ each year to cotton and sugar plantations in the deep South. One of the most productive counties for whiskey distilling in the bluegrass region was neighbouring Woodford County; by the 1850s the county had more slaves than free citizens.
The manufacture of whiskey exemplified the considerable physical demands of many manual workers in the cultivation of grain and labour-intensive tasks. The seasonal sowing of different crops, of corn in spring and rye, barley and oats in autumn, scaled to a slave economy. In autumn the corn was hand-harvested and the kernels shelled, while small grains were reaped and winnowed in spring, then stored for the distilling season. The farms required maintenance of buildings and fences, care of livestock for food, transport and trade; the bluegrass region was also a leading producer of flax and hemp in America. All these activities were conducted with minimal mechanisation, hence slave labour dictated the economy, profits and scale of farming in much of Kentucky.
One the largest and most famous distilleries in Woodford County was the Oscar Pepper Distillery, now Woodford Reserve, where James Crow improved the novel process of making hand-made sour mash whiskey. The distillery’s capacity was 25 bushels a day, with most of the grain mash harvested from his 350-acre farm worked by slaves; Oscar Pepper owned 12 male and 11 female slaves.
When the distilling season started, male slaves were deployed to assist in the malting and milling of grains at Pepper’s water-driven grist mill. The 100 mash tubs in the distillery needed hand-stirring, for cooking corn and mashing small grains, as well as the daily monotony of carrying mash buckets to the pot still and slops back to acidify the mash. The stills needed constant fuelling and monitoring, and the distillate transferred into barrels for storage. Then the leftover stillage fed 100 hogs and cattle in the farm’s livestock yards. In 1850, Pepper’s distillery was one of only 49 in Kentucky to have a full-time distiller, where Crow was remunerated with a share of the annual production between 1840 and 1855.
While a few white neighbours were seasonally employed to work at the distillery, Crow also trained one of Pepper’s slaves, Albert, to be an assistant distiller. Albert likely continued working at the distillery after Pepper’s death when the site was leased to other distillers. As slaves were banned from obtaining an education, his lack of literacy and numeracy skills would have been a significant handicap.
Two months before Pepper died, the Confederacy surrendered to the Union forces in April 1865, and neutral Kentucky came back under the administration of the United States. In Oscar Pepper’s June probate, the estate recorded his slaves as assets. Despite President Lincoln declaring the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, slavery was not abolished in the United States until December 1865, when three-quarters of the states ratified the 13th Amendment. Both Kentucky state houses overwhelmingly rejected the Amendment in 1865. It wasn’t until March 1976 that Kentucky ratified the 13th Amendment.