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Gary E. Frank headshot

Black-Owned Whiskey Brand Raises a Glass to HBCUs

By Gary E. Frank
Uncle Nearest Whisky Old Fashioned Challenge for HBCUs

Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey recently announced the launch of its HBCU Old Fashioned Challenge, a nationwide initiative to raise $1 million for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and raise awareness about the role HBCUs play in workforce diversity and economic mobility.

"Many have opinions about Deion Sanders’ decision to move from Jackson State, an HBCU, to Colorado. I will tell you what I know to be true: Coach Prime put a much-needed spotlight on how HBCU programs can compete if they are properly funded," said Fawn Weaver, founder and CEO of Uncle Nearest, in a statement. "He showed us what one person with influence, shining a light on HBCUs, can do to help."

The nation’s 58 HBCUs constitute just 3 percent of the higher education institutions in the U.S., but they enroll 10 percent of all African-American college students and produce nearly 20 percent of all African-American college graduates. Many of these graduates have gone on to become high achievers in American society, making up 40 percent of African-American judges, 50 percent of African-American doctors and lawyers, and 40 percent of African-American engineers in the U.S. Notable HBCU alumni include the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the poets Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison, the actors Phylicia Rashad, Samuel L. Jackson and Debbie Allen, and the inventor George Alcorn.

Still, many HBCUs are underfunded — contributing to lower graduation rates due to student debt and lack of resources, as well as understaffing and underrepresentation of Black faculty members.

Weaver noted that enrollment in HBCUs "grew tremendously" after Beyoncé’s 2019 documentary, "Homecoming," which was praised as a celebration of African-American culture and education with HBCUs as the foundation of that message.

"I am certainly no Beyoncé, but I have a spotlight on me, and it’s my greatest honor to be able to shift that spotlight where it should be — on our incredible historically Black colleges and universities," Weaver said. "When I reached out to share this program, so many of them asked me, ‘What can we do to help?’ I told each of them that I didn’t want them to do anything. It’s our turn to be torchbearers and give back, asking nothing in return."

Uncle Nearest founder and blender - Uncle Nearest launches funding challenge for HBCUs
Fawn Weaver (left), chairman, founder and CEO of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, and master blender Victoria Eady Butler (right).

The Uncle Nearest Old Fashioned Challenge was launched on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, in order to spotlight the legacy of HBCUs in King’s life and work. Both King, who enrolled in college at the age of 15, and his father, Martin Luther King, Sr., were alumni of Morehouse College, a historically Black men’s liberal arts college in Atlanta. The challenge extends through March, which is Women’s History Month, as an homage to Spelman College, a historically Black women’s college in Atlanta and the No. 1 ranked HBCU in the U.S.

Through the HBCU Old Fashioned Challenge, which runs through March 31, consumers may participate in one of four ways:

  • For every Uncle Nearest Old Fashioned sold at participating bars and restaurants, $1 is being donated to the challenge.
  • Uncle Nearest is donating $1 for each bottle of whiskey sold at participating online and brick-and-mortar retail stores.
  • ReserveBar is selling Old Fashioned Cocktail Kits, featuring a bottle of Uncle Nearest as well as syrup and bitters from Hella Cocktail Co., a Black-owned bitters and soda company. For every kit sold, both Uncle Nearest and ReserveBar are donating $1 to the challenge.
  • During the challenge, fans of Uncle Nearest whiskeys can also submit a photo of a homemade Uncle Nearest Old Fashioned at www.oldfashionedcocktail.com, and Uncle Nearest will donate $1 for each image received.

Thus far, the challenge has garnered an enthusiastic response from the company’s partners and distributors, said Kate Jerkens, senior vice president of global sales and marketing for Uncle Nearest.

"They all want to participate," she told TriplePundit. "Some of them are one-upping us and say, ‘You’re doing a dollar, we’re doing $2.' We’ll take it, we love it. We’ve gotten so much incredible support and people behind it really wanting to stand up."

The top-selling Black-owned spirits brand in the world, Uncle Nearest is named for Nathan "Nearest" Green, a once-enslaved person who taught his distilling techniques to Jack Daniel, founder of the Jack Daniels Tennessee whiskey distillery.

Emancipated after the Civil War, Green was hired as Jack Daniels' first master distiller and is the first African-American master distiller in the U.S. Green’s great-great-granddaughter, Victoria Eady Butler, is Uncle Nearest's master blender and the first known Black woman master whiskey blender in history.

The Old Fashioned Challenge raised $200,000 by Feb. 1, and the distiller hopes it will become a "tent pole" for further efforts that will be "repeated year after year," Jerkens said.

"There are so many Americans in the last few years who say they want to do better for our fellow Americans, or want to know how to help or how to become more of an ally or more of an advocate," Jerkens told us. "Funding HBCUs is giving back to Black Americans. It is a win-win for everyone. Go enjoy a cocktail with a friend. Talk to them about HBCUs and their relevance in our country and in the history of African Americans, and your donation is going to the HBCUs."

Images courtesy of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey 

Gary E. Frank headshot

Gary E. Frank is a writer with more than 30 years of experience encompassing journalism, marketing, media relations, speech writing, university communications and corporate communications. 

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