This article is a part of our inaugural Next Wave Awards. For the full list of 2021 winners, check out the whole series here.

When Victoria Eady Butler blended the first batch of Uncle Nearest 1884 Small Batch Whiskey, she did so armed with 31 years of experience working at the Department of Justice and exactly zero whiskey blends under her belt, professional or otherwise. Yet, as the great-great-granddaughter of the company’s namesake Nathan “Uncle Nearest” Green, you could say whiskey runs through Butler’s veins.

Born in 1820 and enslaved in Tennessee, Green taught Jack Daniel how to distill whiskey, and is the first known African-American master distiller. Nearly two centuries on, Butler is continuing that legacy.

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“When I was asked to blend the first batch of 1884, I was extremely honored to do it,” Butler says. “I never saw that coming, but it opened up a passion for me that I didn’t know was there. Having done it now for over two years, it is just a blessing.”

If that newfound passion in any way inspired Butler to make up for lost time in the whiskey industry, she’s doing a sterling job so far. Following the overwhelmingly positive reception for her first batch, Butler was soon elevated to the role of master blender by Uncle Nearest’s CEO and founder, Fawn Weaver. Butler’s blends have since racked up a rickhouse of awards, as has her own natural ability to blend whiskey.

But for Butler and the Uncle Nearest team, the driving force remains “more than whiskey.” Butler serves as the director of administration for the Nearest Green Foundation, a non-profit organization that financially supports Green’s descendants who wish to continue their higher education.

Butler also describes one of her proudest moments at Uncle Nearest as the company’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Uncle Nearest’s visitor’s center was transported into a PPE shipping hub, and the company has sent out hundreds of thousands of pieces of protective equipment to date.

Just like Butler’s nascent career in the whiskey industry, Uncle Nearest continues to evolve at breakneck speed. Despite launching just two years ago, Uncle Nearest whiskeys retail in all 50 states, as well as 12 countries worldwide. The brand celebrated this past Juneteenth with the grand reopening of its distillery, which closed in March 2020 because of the pandemic. “Our company moves at a very rapid pace, but we strive to do it with excellence,” Butler says.

Butler approaches her own role within the company with a similar focus on excellence. She takes pride in being a student of her craft, and says she’s continuously learning to ensure she becomes the best whiskey blender she can be.

Professionally speaking, it’s very much a here-and-now approach, though Butler plans to remain in her role as master blender for as long as she has the desire to work. “I hope that is for years and years and years to come,” she says.

In the grander scheme of things, however, Butler’s own place in history is not lost on her. “There are not very many people — none that I actually know of — who have the opportunity to continue a legacy that began more than 160 years ago,” she says. “I’m very proud to be the one that gets to do that, and I’m extremely proud to be Nearest Green’s great-great-granddaughter.”