Until his death in 2009 at the age of 62, Mr. Sutton, known as Popcorn, was a moonshiner. He was not quite the last, as he often claimed, but he was probably the most famous ever to work out of Cocke County, which long had a claim as the nation’s moonshining capital.
It may yet again. As of last Thursday, microdistilleries are legal in Cocke County for the first time. And at the head of the line is a distillery making Mr. Sutton’s recipe.
Nestled in the rocky embrace of the Great Smoky Mountains, Cocke County was a moonshine center for as long as anyone here can recall.
For most families, in a rugged place with few opportunities, it was a matter of survival. But for an enterprising few, making and hauling untaxed and unregulated liquor became a profitable, dangerous and inevitably romanticized trade.
Making moonshine later began to give way to growing marijuana, and by the 1960s the county was notorious for chop shops, cockfighting rings, prostitution and corrupt officials. Over the decades, the lawless elements have been corralled for the most part. But the bad old image of Cocke County lingers. And irks.
“They’re having to live down now that reputation they got some time ago,” said Al Schmutzer Jr., who for 32 years was the district attorney here.
Thus the complicated legacy of Popcorn Sutton.
A North Carolinian by birth, Mr. Sutton learned to distill in Cocke County, where he was known as an affable rogue and a maker of potent but fine-tasting corn whiskey. He lived in a cluttered cabin on a wooded hill where he also built his stills, gave pistols to the incoming sheriffs and fathered so many children that no one has any idea of the exact accounting.
But perhaps his greatest gift, and his most notable departure from the standard moonshining model, was in the field of marketing.
“He’s very atypical,” said Duay O’Neil, who writes a weekly column in The Newport Plain Talk about the county’s history. “He gave the world what they expected of a moonshiner. He dressed the part and he talked the talk.” Mr. Sutton’s beard and profanity were equally effusive.
“And he made a good product,” Mr. O’Neil added, “which I can say from experience.”
In 1999, Mr. Sutton published “Me and My Likker,” a rambling, obscene and often hilarious account of his life in the trade. Soon after, he was featured in a documentary “This is the Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make” (later recut as “The Last One”), which he sold out of a North Carolina junk shop. It became a cult hit, leading to newspaper features, occasional meetings with celebrities and a high-profile role in a 2007 History Channel documentary.
At one point, Mr. Sutton even made business cards.
“I told him, ‘Old man, you can’t be a movie star and make liquor too,’ ” said Mark Ramsey, a close friend. “He said, ‘You can’t sell it if nobody knows you got it.’ I don’t know whether he had a point or not.”
In March 2008, Mr. Sutton, who had had run-ins with the law about once a decade, was arrested by federal authorities after offering to sell nearly 1,000 gallons of moonshine to an undercover agent. Despite a guilty plea, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison by a federal judge plainly displeased with Mr. Sutton’s fondness for publicity. It came as a shock, said his friends, to whom he had sworn he would not go to prison.
While under house arrest, Mr. Sutton befriended a 29-year-old former motocross racer named Jamey Grosser, who came to Tennessee with plans to set up a legal distillery. Mr. Sutton sold Mr. Grosser the recipe for his whiskey and they worked out a partnership deal.
Then, on the morning of March 16, 2009, four days before Mr. Sutton was to report to prison, he climbed into the green Ford Fairlane parked in his yard and, having rigged a pipe from the tailpipe through the back seat, killed himself.
The Popcorn Sutton industry was far from finished.
The Discovery Channel made him a principal figure in a series about moonshiners. One of Mr. Sutton’s daughters, a surgeon in Alaska, has sued his widow over the rights to his book. Another daughter wrote her own book, “Daddy Moonshine.”
Pam Sutton, whom he married in 2007, has made Popcorn Sutton T-shirts, key chains and ladies’ undergarments. “He would like the attention but he would swear he didn’t,” she said, adding that strangers frequently show up at the house wanting tours.
A few months after Mr. Sutton’s death, a state law allowing microdistilleries was passed. Mr. Grosser, who now had a new partner in Hank Williams Jr., set up a distillery in Nashville, which as of last fall began producing 800 cases of Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey a month.
Mr. Grosser has long planned to open a distillery in Cocke County, possibly with a museum attached. He discussed it with county officials, who had come to see Mr. Sutton’s legacy, in a rather amusing twist, as a potentially rich source of tax revenue in a county that has its economic struggles.
But Cocke County was among several counties that remained exceptions to the microdistillery law. The county board held a vote on whether to opt in, and the members unanimously voted no.
Norman Smith, who is on the board, said he objected to alcohol on moral grounds, but also feared that this would only reinforce stubborn and unfair stereotypes. “Our school system’s winning national awards,” he said. “And you’ve got an image of: ‘They can make moonshine. That’s all they can do.’ ”
Proponents made a simple counterargument. “We’ve had such a bad reputation for so long,” said Mr. Ramsey, “why not turn it around and make some money off it?”
When the board took a new vote last October, most members voted to opt in, prompting the legislature to include Cocke County in the microdistiller law. After all these years, Mr. Sutton’s whiskey is now legitimate here, from production to consumption.
This would be to Mr. Sutton’s liking, Mr. Ramsey said, as he wanted to leave his widow comfortable. But Mr. Ramsey also suspects that Mr. Sutton would himself probably have kept doing it the old way. His final message to the public seems to bear that out. On the footstone of his grave, there is only a four-word phrase. “Popcorn Said — ” it begins, and the rest is unfit to print.