I’ve been to a Haywood County party or two in my day, and I’ve sampled what my hosts proudly put on display as real mountain moonshine: Popcorn’s ‘shine. They would have been referring to home brew connoisseur Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, purportedly the local moonshine king. I had no way of knowing for sure if I was sampling the legend’s liquor, but the whiskey sure put a hitch in my gitalong.
So the news of Popcorn’s arrest brought with it a tinge of nostalgia and a bit of regret — another mountain tradition is coming to an end. Perhaps no other enduring image — the mountain moonshiner — better embodies these traits: stubborn independence, dogged persistence and a little ingenuity.
The government, of course, doesn’t see it that way. “Moonshine is romanticized in folklore and the movies,” ATF Special Agent in Charge James Cavanaugh of the Nashville Field Division said in a written press release accompanying the announcement of Sutton’s arrest. “The truth though is that moonshine is a dangerous health issue and breeds other crime. This has not changed over the years. The illegal moonshine business is fraud on taxpayers in Tennessee and across the country.”
At 61, the charges Sutton now faces could put him away for the rest of his life. He faces three charges related to the manufacture and possession of selling untaxed whiskey — white corn whiskey was allegedly what he’s been making lately — and one charge of being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in federal prison on the firearms count and up to five years in prison for each of the moonshining counts. He faces up to a $250,000 fine on each count, according to the news release issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee. Sutton appeared before a federal magistrate on Friday. He’ll be held without bond until a preliminary hearing March 28.
Federal agents executed search warrants on Thursday in Parrottsville, Tenn. They found three big stills “with capacities up to 1,000 gallons, over eight hundred and fifty gallons of moonshine, and hundreds of gallons of mash, materials and ingredients used to manufacture moonshine, and firearms and ammunition,” according to the news release.
Popcorn made little secret of his affinity for moonshine. He had a (spiral-bound) book, Me and My Likker that’s out of print. A reviewer on Amazon called it “a snort of 100 proof fresh air.” The government also mentions Popcorn’s video, “The Last Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make,” but his only movie credit appears to be 2007’s Ghost Town: The Movie. Popcorn does have a couple of YouTube videos for anyone interested in making “likker.” In one, where he’s described as an “Appalachian distillery artisan,” Popcorn explains to a buddy that there’s three kinds of homemade liquor — “the fightin’ kind, the cryin’ kind and the banjo pickin’ kind. Which one do you want?”
Click here to go to the Xpress Files and read the government’s affidavit in the case.
— Jason Sandford, multimedia editor