Popcorn Sutton - The Ultimate Moonshiner
Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton may have been a hillbilly but he was also an entrepreneur who surprisingly knew much about marketing. He was descended from a long line of moonshiners and considered it his heritage to produce it. Popcorn was small in build but large in friendliness and his homemade corn whiskey was known to be one of the most potent to be had in Appalachia. Making the moonshine was one thing, selling it was another. So Popcorn branded himself always talking the talk and dressing the part. He became an icon of the unregulated liquor trade and its romanticized lore.
Popcorn Sutton grew up in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, a picturesque town nestled near the Tennessee border in the Smoky Mountains. He learned the craft of making moonshine from his father, Vader, who learned it from his own father. How far back in his ancestry the art of old copper cookery went is unknown. Some say the Scots-Irish brought the knowledge with them when they came to America. Even as the making and hauling of untaxed and unregulated liquor became illegal, families in the rugged reaches of the mountains saw it as a means of survival. Perhaps it was Popcorn's well-known stubbornness or an innate rebellion that kept him cooking his specialized brew.He was of the ilk that didn't appreciate outsider meddling.
He ended up in rural Cocke County, Tennessee known as one of the four "moonshine capitals of the world". (Some say he was born there and not North Carolina) From the early 1970s until his death in 2009, Sutton distilled his corn whiskey despite being arrested at least once every decade. He lived in a cluster of cabins on a hill where he also kept his stills. Popcorn believed in only using the best equipment and ingredients. He once said, " If you ain't got the proper equipment to start with, then you don't need to get in the business, because you don't need to kill a bunch of people and make 'em sick. I wanted to make a product that they'd come back and see me when they got that drunk up."
Popcorn was married nine times, five of those to the same woman. Popcorn preferred his women legal. He is thought to have fathered eight children but no one knows for certain how many there might be. It is said he didn't acknowledge a one. Popcorn had a terrible temper and always carried a .38 caliber pistol so folks knew not to mess with him. He carried this in his bib overalls pocket along with a great wad of cash. While telling tales and drinking rotgut in a western North Carolina bar, he decided to get a treat from the bar's new popcorn machine. When the coins he inserted did not yield the expected popcorn, he took out his pistol and shot it. He later paid for the damages but was known as "Popcorn" after that.
He was a frequent visitor to the Misty Mountain Ranch Bed & Breakfast in Maggie Valley, North Carolina where he would sit out on the porch picking banjo and serenading guests. The owners asked him to help decorate their new "Moonshiner" suite and Popcorn willingly donated some hardware and props. He wore a rats nest beard and a stooped back from carrying bags of sugar through the woods to his stills. But he was quick with a joke and much wiser than he appeared.
Popcorn was no fool. He was the mountain man you could find. He cashed in on curious tourists driving through Appalachia hoping to run into someone just like him. He charged these tourists $3 to have their photo taken with him. And very often they would happily continue on their way with a homemade jug of his hooch. Always an opportunist, Popcorn hung an "Antiques" sign on an old shed nearby to attract visitors. There were no antiques, but he was always ready to talk about his work and give a free demonstration on the still he carried in the back of his old pick-up truck. Of course he made sure there were at least a few copies of his book Me and My Likker available for purchase. Popcorn made several videos and was the topic of more than one news story and television documentary. He made sure anyone who worked with him dressed the part too. Popcorn not only sold top notch moonshine, he sold a persona as well.
The law in Cocke County, Tennessee where Popcorn ran his illegal business were quick to turn a blind eye. The county was a hotbed for prostitution and moonshine and those activities brought in revenue. Popcorn had brushes with the law, of course, and was first arrested by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) in 1974. He was arrested several times after that. But Popcorn's undoing came in 2008 when an undercover federal agent bought 800 gallons of his firewater. A tradition was coming to an end. Facing 18 months in federal prison as well as battling cancer, Popcorn Sutton took his own life in 2009.
Popcorn took pride in his liquor and people came from all over to buy it. He kept his recipe a secret and only shared it with a chosen few toward the end of his life. One of those people is Californian Jamie Grosser who was looking to get into the liquor business and wanted to sell moonshine legally. He visited with Popcorn at his Tennessee cabin where Popcorn agreed it was time to go "legit" and proved himself to be an apt teacher. When Grosser asked Popcorn about a possible celebrity sponsor, Popcorn would hear of no one but Hank Williams Jr. After Popcorn's death, Grosser went on with the knowledge he gleamed from Popcorn and in partnership with Hank Williams Jr. and Popcorn's widow to create " the biggest legal moonshine still in the world". So just two years after his death, Popcorn Sutton's Tennessee White Whiskey is available to purchase in liquor stores and bars.
After his death, some of Popcorn's children made themselves known. He was buried in a remote area of western North Carolina with his mother and father. After vandals stole markings from the gravesite, Popcorn's widow, Pamela, had his body removed and re-buried in Tennessee. His daughter, Regina (who lives in Alaska) was outraged. Along with her supporters, including his ex-girlfriend Ernestine Upchurch, his daughter is fighting to get his body returned to the original gravesite and reclaim his brand name. She hopes to release her own moonshine based on her father's recipe near her home in Anchorage.