The day that a distillery can officially debut its very own aged whiskey distillate is always a big milestone for any company—an unofficial coming-of-age moment for brands that are initially built on sourcing, while transitioning into more of a homemade business plan. Tennessee’s Uncle Nearest is celebrating such a milestone on at least one major level—the latest release of their distillery only Master Blend Edition No. 5 represents the first liquid sold by Uncle Nearest that was distilled to their specification, and aged by the company in house. Effectively, it gives the brand greater ownership of this spirit than any they’ve ever sold before.
Uncle Nearest’s well-publicized story of course revolves around the legacy of Nathan “Nearest” Green, a former slave who went on to instruct businessman Jack Daniel in the art of American whiskey distillation, and was eventually recognized as the first ever master distiller of Jack Daniel’s, and thus the first known Black master distillery in U.S. history. Today, the company is shepherded by fifth-generation Nearest Green descendant Victoria Eady, who worked in the Department of Justice for more than 30 years before making a transition into the family legacy of Tennessee whiskey. Her name adorns each bottle, including the company’s most prestigious Master Blend releases.
As for the actual provenance of this fifth edition of the Master Blend series, operations at the Nearest Green Distillery “are still being built out” according to a company representative, “so product is not yet able to distill on site.” What we have here is the first whiskey that was distilled specifically to the specifications of Uncle Nearest, using a classic bourbon-style mashbill of corn, rye and malted barley, although Uncle Nearest also uses the Lincoln County Process of sugar maple charcoal filtration before aging, and chooses to label its product as “American whiskey.” This Master Blend was then aged for roughly 4.5 years in Tennessee and bottled at what I’m assuming is cask strength, at a robust 59.2% ABV (118.4 proof). That should make it quite a bit more assertive than something like the flagship Uncle Nearest 1884 or 1856 brands, which weigh in at 93 and 100 proof respectively.
So with all that said, let’s get to tasting and see how the fruit of Uncle Nearest’s labor has been ripening in the last few years. Before tasting, I will note that the whiskey seems unusually dark in the glass for the relatively young age, a bronze color that looks like the spirit has interacted pretty deeply with the wood.
On the nose, I’m getting a lot of dark fruit and oaky spice notes of up front—somewhat jammy, cooked dark fruit preserves with notes of plum or blackberry. The amount of oak is pretty considerable for this being only 4.5 years old, with a combination of spicy (cinnamon, nutmeg) and aromatic wood notes. There’s also some cocoa here, and the nose is fairly impressive in the way it’s avoiding very strong cereal impressions from the grain, as one would probably expect given the age statement. All in all, if I was approaching this completely blind, I would think it was much older than it actually is.
On the palate, this Master Blend Edition No. 5 reads as both fiery and flavorful, with big dark fruit, herbal (tobacco) and earthy tones. I’m getting a lot of molasses-like sweetness up front, but things then turn drier, as oak and dark fruit pithy bitterness provide balance on the back end. There’s no shortage of spicy heat here as well, both in the form of peppery tones/chile pepper, which play nicely with sweeter baking spices. Over time, one other random but pleasant impression swims to the forefront: Chocolate malt balls.
All in all, this Master Blend presents as a little bit brash, but it’s absolutely not lacking in character, and no one would accuse it of being boring. I might actually like to see it at a slightly lower proof, but it’s an excellent preview of the company’s own whiskey recipe, a surprisingly complex dram that is punching way above the expectations of a merely 4.5 year age statement. The MSRP of $150, on the other hand, demands significantly higher expectations, and might be hard for some consumers to justify, but I can’t argue with the big, punchy flavors that Master Blend Edition No. 5 is bringing to play. I honestly reminds me of something like certain batches of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, and that can’t be interpreted as anything but a compliment.
At the very least, it makes us look forward to a day when all of Uncle Nearest’s products are made to this specification, implying that the future is bright for the Tennessee upstarts.
Distillery: Uncle Nearest
City: Shelbyville, TN
Style: Tennessee whiskey/American whiskey
ABV: 59.2% (118.4 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $150 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.