There are local heroes, there are local villains, and then there are those who are often a combination of both. Local legends. Popcorn Sutton is one such local legend that some call a hero and others call a criminal. Which side you fall on will probably depend a lot on how you view alcohol, state and federal powers, and individuality. Ready to see where you fall?
Continue reading to learn the provocative and divisive story of Tennessee legend Popcorn Sutton:
Who Was Popcorn Sutton?
Popcorn Sutton was born Marvin Sutton in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. Although, that’s not where he spent most of his days. Most of his life, including his youth, was spent in Cocke County, Tennessee. Additionally, for the majority of his life, fairly few outside of Cocke County, Tennessee knew who he was.
This Tennessee man was descended from a Scots-Irish American family that had prided themselves on doing their own thing. Including making their own moonshine. Popcorn Sutton simply grew up doing what he and his family had always done. Unfortunately, just because your family thinks you’re in the right doesn’t mean the law does.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Popcorn Sutton started getting in trouble with local law enforcement. His first arrest and conviction in connection with his illegal alcohol brewing was in 1974 on charges of selling untaxed liquor. Popcorn was again taken back in 1981 and 1985 on charges of possessing controlled substances and an assault charge. The latter of which caused him to do some time in Asheville’s Craggy Correctional Center.
Throughout those decades, Popcorn Sutton operated a small junk shop just outside of Cherokee, NC. This was a true bunk shop piled with things like old license plates, painted gourds, used appliances, and cartons full of old bottles. He also, for a time, covertly sold his own homebrewed moonshine here.
Unfortunately, someone snitched on his covert alcohol operation, and in 1998, state agents searched his place. Those agents seized his moonshine still and over sixty gallons of produced moonshine. While operating a distilling unit and selling illegal alcohol is a felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000, Popcorn Sutton was not initially sent to jail. The judge instead put him on probation and offered him an out with a suspended sentence.
And this is where Popcorn Sutton went from a relatively unknown small-time moonshiner into something of a national celebrity and local legend. Rather than lie low following sentencing, Popcorn Sutton saw fit to share his world with the world. He worked with local author Ernestine Upchurch to write a semi-autobiography and an insider’s guide to moonshine production. Admittedly, all the while Popcorn Sutton swore up and down that he would never make another bottle of moonshine again. In 1999, the book was finished and self-published under the title Me and My Likker and, despite him initially only selling the treatise out of his junk shop, it received quite a lot of attention. Popcorn also created a home video under the same title and started selling it as a VHS tape also at his junk shop.
Notoriety for Popcorn Sutton really started rolling when documentarian and videographer Neal Hutchenson got word of the man’s antics. Hutchenson featured Popcorn in two of his films. First, the 2002 documentary Mountain Talk, which was more of a broader look at Appalachian culture and its unique dialects, and then again (the same year) a more biographical film about Popcorn’s antics called, This is the Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make.
But, my dear readers, it was not the last run of liquor Popcorn ever made. In 2007, a fire on his property led firefighters and law enforcement to discover 650 gallons of untaxed alcohol. Somehow, again, Popcorn was not given jail time and rather, again, given a suspended sentence.
Seemingly feeling invincible and having earned acclaim for his book and multiple documentaries, Popcorn shared his antics with people he’d meet in his shop and around town. In March 2008, he made the big mistake of telling the wrong undercover officer that he had made nearly 1,000 gallons of moonshine recently and was ready to sell it. An ATF raid was assembled and sent out post haste. Underneath a federal judge, Popcorn Sutton was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison at 62 years of age.
Tragically, Popcorn Sutton chose instead death by suicide. His daughter told officials that Popcorn Sutton had confided that he’d rather go by suicide than jail. He said he had, “the strength to die the way he lived: according to his own wishes and no one’s else.”
Hero or Criminal?
Those who see Popcorn Sutton as a local hero often cite that he was just doing what he had always done. What his family had always done and who was it to let the government dictate what you can make on your own property with your own property? And, in fact, several states allow individuals to produce moonshine. Only for one’s own consumption and not for sale.
Those who see Popcorn Sutton as a criminal often cite that moonshine, well, is illegal, but it can also be harmful. More harmful than someone buying for curiosity’s sake might understand. India has a thriving moonshine industry and is poorly taken care of. There are many who suffer from daily fatalities caused by cheaply-made moonshine liquor.
Grab Your Copy of Popcorn Sutton’s Book and Enjoy (Legal) Moonshine On Your Visit to Tennessee
Homebrewing your own moonshine is illegal. However, licensed distilleries in Tennessee are licensed to make a certain style of flavored corn mashed liquor and whiskey that is sold as moonshine. Even though the term “moonshine” technically refers to illegally-made liquor. This style of drink is lower in alcohol proof but is quite delicious and can be readily found at any bar or package store in the state. We certainly recommend giving it a try on your next visit to Tennessee. Maybe even consider picking up Popcorn Sutton’s own book to hear his story in his own words!