Story by Manos Angelakis
Product photos by Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, archival woodcut

alchemists with alembic

Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskeys.

The story of alcoholic fermentation goes back to 6,000 years ago in China, where a peasant who was making a gruel of rice, millet and water did not have time to fully cook his dinner; he allowed the mixture to sit in a pot, on a counter, for a few days. When he eventually got back to his cooking, he found that the brew had naturally fermented and acquired a distinct sweetish taste that the peasant liked very much. He ate much of his dish and the next morning woke up with a splitting headache -- the first hangover was born!

The next step took place about 1000 years later, in either North Africa or the Arabian Peninsula, where Arab alchemists thought of removing the evil jinn i.e. evil spirit that caused the bad headaches from the fermenting gruel by heating the gruel. Their gruel was made of grain, barley and water from the local well. They thought the heat would cleanse the gruel by chasing away the jinn, and no headache would be felt after eating the mixture. One of the alchemists decided to capture the jinn; so he put the gruel in a vessel with a spout and covered the top while heating the bottom. He then added another vessel next to the boiling pot connecting the spout to the second container so that he would capture the jinn in the second pot as it got out. To his amazement, he saw the jinn (steam) coming out of the spout and condensing to a liquid at the bottom of the second pot; he was sure he had finally captured the evil jinn!

Someone in the alchemist’s retinue decided to taste the liquid in the second container; and he thought it was very good tasting, even though it gave him a big headache when he had too much. Nowadays, we still use some Arabic terms when we talk about the distillation process. A pot still is referred to as an “alembic” and, of course, the result of distillation is alcohol (al-kuhul).

I brought up this piece of ancient lore because I was given two bottles (750 ml each) of a new Tennessee whiskey to taste.

Uncle Nearest Small batch


This whiskey is called “Uncle Nearest” and is made in Shelbyville,  Lincoln County, Tennessee; it currently comes in three expressions: a blend of 8- to 14- year old American Oak barrel whiskeys bottled at 100-proof; an 11-year-old, above 108 proof, from a single American Oak barrel; and a 7-year-old 93-proof also aged in American Oak barrels as a small batch offering. All three are mellowed using the Lincoln County Process, a unique filtering of whiskey through sugar maple charcoal.

The brand is named in memory and to honor Nathan “Nearest” Green, a slave African-American master distiller who taught the process of whiskey-making and double filtration to Jack Daniel, the most famous Tennessee Whiskey maker. Three of Green's descendants still work at the Jack Daniel's distillery.

Tasting both samples was a delight; these were smooth whiskeys, with a great mouth feel where as much of the impurities and fusil oils as possible have been removed. They were both tasted in cold glasses, with just a splash of very cold water to bring out the natural aromas and flavor. The colors are amber and darker amber. There are hints of vanilla, ginger and charcoal, but the most prominent tastes were caramel and apple and a mixture of clove, nutmeg, and oak. There is certainly plenty of character and lots of flavor in these whiskeys. Used as I am to Islay peat-smoke-heavy whisky, I found the sweeter flavors quite intriguing. The finish is long and rich and lingers pleasantly on the palate.

And, by the way, I got no headache after I had a few glasses from each bottle. I guess the Arab alchemist’s process finally chased the evil jinn out of the mash!




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