Popcorn Sutton American White Whiskey Moonshiner
by Whiskey.com on 04/04/2012 - 03:34 pm
Category: Whiskey People
Moonshine and moonshiners are almost as American as apple pie. A legendary moonshiner like Popcorn Sutton would take exception to the word ‘almost’. Popcorn comes from a tradition of American moonshiners who trace their history to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, a revolt against the imposition of taxes on liquor to pay for the Revolutionary War. Americans thought the Boston Tea Party had taken care of that idea. The Whiskey Rebellion was crushed, but moonshiners grabbed the popular imagination and moonshining to avoid taxes took root.
Popcorn Sutton can thank the temperance movement of the late 19th century and Prohibition in the 1920s for his occupation and fame. According to moonshiners, these are two of the greatest things to ever happen.
About Popcorn Sutton
Born in 1946, Popcorn came by his white whiskey occupation honestly as he is descended from a long line of moonshiners and learned to distill from his father. Brought up in Cocke County, Tennessee, the moonshine capital of the country, Popcorn was the right man in the right place. Living in a secluded cabin, he built his own stills and perfected a very potent, excellent corn whiskey.
It wasn’t until the early 1970s that he had his first conviction for selling untaxed liquor. He mostly avoided legal trouble and averaged about an arrest per decade -- less one encounter with an uncooperative barroom popcorn machine that earned him his nickname. Popcorn’s final arrest came in 2008 when federal agents caught him selling almost 1,000 gallons of his famous white whiskey. After pleading guilty, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Suffering from cancer, he committed suicide in 2009 just days before he was to report. He was buried in the same yard where his stills are.
Popcorn wrote a book about his life, was featured in documentaries, and appeared in a television series about moonshiners. He was dedicated to marketing his life and even had business cards. Before he died, he sold his famous white whiskey recipe and was preparing to set up a legal distillery. After his death, Tennessee passed a law permitting micro-distilleries. Finally, Popcorn had gone legit and his white whiskey became the first ever approved by the federal government. It is now being produced from his recipe in Nashville.
Making moonshine is as much an art as a science and time will tell if the legitimate version equals the illegal labor of love. Although there are many variations, the basic recipe for moonshine is water, yeast, sugar and corn meal. Other grains can be substituted, but almost all U.S. moonshine is from corn. Moonshine begins with combining those ingredients in a barrel, covering it and letting it ferment for a few days. The contents are then poured into a still and run through it. This mash is vaporized by heating it to around 175 degrees and letting it flow into a ‘thumper’ for a second distillation. The vapor is vented into a coil where it cools, condenses and then can be sold.
Moonshine remains illegal for individuals to make. Not only can it pose a health danger due to high alcohol content but some makers have been known to add dangerous ingredients to it like rubbing alcohol or bleach. Moonshine can kill and it’s impossible to have enough government regulations to ensure it’s made under safe conditions.
Other than Popcorn, moonshine’s best legacy may be NASCAR. The NASCAR racing series grew out of the car and racing culture that developed around bootleggers delivering moonshine. Who said nothing good ever came from moonshine?