Moonshine Distiller Emerges from Underground as New Businesses

By: Michael Engle

Many people seem to have a particular family member with a certain hidden food talent.  Whether it is a grandmother's casserole recipe, an uncle's barbecue sauce, or a father's steak seasoning blend, these family traditions invariably become priceless family secrets.  Sometimes, these small-scale items emerge as bases for publicly-known brands.  In the case of the late Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton, an entire line of bootlegged moonshine has been transformed into a business, due to revised local liquor laws.  The New York Times writer Campbell Robertson recently profiled Popcorn and the nascent industry he helped launch.

Though once illegal in Cooke County, Tennessee, moonshine production has been a fixture in its local informal economy for generations.  As there were few alternative opportunities for making a living in the region, moonshine has been a risky industry, but successful moonshiners have used the under-the-table money to support their families.  The associated lawlessness and corruption (Popcorn himself routinely provided pistols to local sheriffs) have cemented a negative stereotype upon the county.  Most moonshiners in Cooke County elected to maintain a low profile, but Popcorn was the exception to this rule, since he freely and frequently pedaled his "potent but fine-tasting" corn whiskey.

Local columnist Duay O'Neill recalled, "[Popcorn]'s very atypical.  He gave the world what they expected of a moonshiner.  He dressed the part and he talked the talk.  And he made a good product, which I can say from experience."  Popcorn's track record validated O'Neill's profile.  In 1999, he published his memoirs as a moonshiner, entitled Me and My Likker (sic); Popcorn was then prominently featured in the cult documentary This is the Last Dam Run of Likker I'll Ever Make (sic), or, as it has since been retitled, The Last One.  This, in turn, led to even more newspaper features, meetings with celebrities, and a high-profile role in a 2007 documentary, which was broadcast on The History Channel.

Popcorn's visibility helped him gain notoriety, which he openly sought.  As Popcorn rationalized, "You can't sell it if nobody knows you got it!"  However, as a consequence, he would encounter, on average, one run-in with the law per decade.  March 2008 would prove to be his last such run-in, after he offered to sell a thousand gallons of moonshine to an undercover federal agent.  When he was sentenced to 18 months in prison, Popcorn formulated a plan for his last stand.  He befriended former motocross racer turned prospective legal distillery founder Jamey Grosser, sold his recipe to Grosser, and formulated their business partnership deal.  Four days before his sentence was scheduled to commence, Popcorn committed suicide by self-inflicted vehicular carbon monoxide poisoning.

After Popcorn's death, Grosser, along with new partner Hank Williams, Jr., established a distillery in Nashville.  They currently produce 800 cases of Popcorn Sutton's Tennessee White Whiskey each month.  Plans to open a museum and to expand to Cooke County, where the Popcorn Sutton brand originated, are now possible, after an October 2011 vote to legalize micro-distilleries in the county.  Popcorn's death, as well as Tennessee's wave of legalizing micro-distilleries by county, established a new legacy for moonshiners.  Once considered an unsavory and lawless activity, moonshining is now a key source of tax revenue.

Photo: Neal Hutcheson

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