Cocktail chat: Keith Weaver, the real-life humble baron
Keith Weaver, co-founder of Tennessee whiskey brand Uncle Nearest, tells us about making the longest bar in the world one of the most welcoming.
*This feature was first published in the May issue of The Spirits Business magazine.
When you’re a long-tenured executive vice-president at Sony Pictures Entertainment, the co-founder of internationally acclaimed whiskey brand Uncle Nearest, and half of one of the most formidable power couples in the spirits industry, it may be difficult to maintain a level of groundedness. But Keith Weaver has managed it, so much so that the new bar at the Nearest Green Distillery in Shelbyville, Tennessee, is named in honour of him.
“Most people have this misperception that the spirits industry is glamorous,” Weaver tells me as we sit in the newly opened Humble Baron bar an hour outside of Nashville. “Which it could be, but as a start-up, maybe less so.” He explains: “As Uncle Nearest was starting, I would commute here on the weekends, and the work to be done here is very different than my normal life [in California]. It’s pulling weeds, it’s picking up trash. So I would come here – exhausted – start doing all these tasks, and I said to my wife, am I a whiskey baron now? And she said ‘no, but you are a humble baron – now get back to work’,” he laughs, “and that’s how the name came to be.”
Humble Baron is a bar and entertainment venue that has been created for impact. On its opening weekend in March this year, it saw almost 8,000 people come through its doors. That may seem like a lot, but considering this venue holds the Guinness World Record for the longest bar in the world, with capacity for 500, and enough seats for 198, it isn’t difficult to imagine how all of those people would fit in.
At 518 feet long, the 17-station bar, with space for 50 members of staff, snakes around the 20,000-square-foot room in twists and turns beneath the sound engineering rig above, and past the eye-catching stage at the back of the venue (both were built by the team that created Paisley Park for Prince), before swerving back around to complete a loop. “It’s quite an undertaking to get service to flow,” Weaver explains, describing service at the bar like a choreographed dance piece. “I didn’t want it just to be the longest bar in the world. I wanted it to feel comfortable. When we were kind of going full tilt over opening weekend, the movement of people made for a beautiful thing to look at.”
Part of Humble Baron’s brand identity, he says, is “everybody has a seat at the table. So whether you’re white, Black, brown, young or old I want you to feel comfortable here.”
Humble Baron pushes itself to offer “the best-in-class” of food, drink and entertainment, and as such has enlisted the help of cocktail bar group Death & Co in the curation of its beverage offering. “Being the longest bar could get gimmicky really fast – I wanted the drink experience to be great.”
Together, Humble Baron and the New York-founded bar conceived of a menu that champions BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour)-owned and female-led spirits that are “extraordinary”. “What better way to support these brands than to expose people to their products?” he asks.
The impressive menu showcases a diverse collective of BIPOC-owned brands including Sorel, an artisanal liqueur made at the US’s first legal Black distillery; Freeland Gin, a female-led brand from Portland; Equiano Rum, co-owned by global rum ambassador Ian Burrell; and, of course, Uncle Nearest, co-founded by Weaver’s wife, Fawn, and blended by Nearest Green’s descendent, Victoria Eady Butler. But Weaver says these brands aren’t on the menu just because they’re female- or BIPOC-founded, it’s because they live up to the high standards he has set for the bar.
The same can be said for its entertainment programme. The line-up of the four-day launch included performances from country artists to a gospel brunch, with an urban day party in the middle. For Weaver, “this idea that we can be connected to one another, and share an experience and have some enjoyment regardless of how different we may be”, was what he had hoped for. “As the weekend unfolded, I was really looking at the people around the bar because I wanted to see how they were enjoying this experience. I feel strongly that there’s more that connects us than what divides us. And so that’s what excites me about this, in the context of Nearest Green Distillery. I want people to feel the connection, and I hope that not only do they find themselves enjoying this experience, but that informs the way they connect with people differently and better.”
I learn that Weaver is a competitive man, not in a way that belittles or undermines others, but in a way that pushes him to give the best of what he has to offer. He confirms a rumour that the space has been built so that if another venue tries to break his record for having the longest bar in the world, he can simply pull down a wall and extend it. “We’re on over 400 acres, so we’ve got room to run,” he says, before sharing his ambitions to eventually extend the bar to the outside so that they can offer alfresco drinking and festival experiences. “There’s a corresponding larger stage on the outside where artists could perform to many thousands of guests. There’s nothing you can see that isn’t a part of the property, so we can create kind of like a smaller version of Coachella, which makes sense for the brand and what we’re doing here.”
By dint of its location, Humble Baron is “a destination bar” that Weaver hopes will continue to make its way to the top of visitors’ hit lists. “We have a high degree of whiskey-related tourism through the region. Not quite as much as Kentucky, of course, but it’s building. Tennessee was, and to some extent still is, defined by Jack Daniel’s,” he says, referring to his neighbour 22 miles away, “but Tennessee whiskey as a category is growing. I think that Jack Daniel’s loves that growth as much as we do, and people are interested in what’s happening here.”
However, Weaver isn’t ignorant about the difficulty of Humble Baron’s location – 51 miles south of Nashville, with no direct public transport and a lack of local accommodation – though the latter is something Weaver hopes to bring on site in the coming years. “We’re in the middle of Bedford County, which is almost to say, respectfully, in the middle of nowhere. But it’s beautiful, ideal countryside. And there are people here who are wanting for things to do.” Humble Baron, he suggests, is one such exemplary “thing to do”. “I want people to come here for years, and I want it to be relevant for years. And based on creativity being a foundational principle for us, that’ll happen.”