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VOL. 36 | NO. 37 | Friday, September 14, 2012

‘Popcorn’ is gone but his legacy lives on

By Tim Ghianni

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When Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton rigged the exhaust pipe of his green Fairlane so the carbon monoxide would kill him, he ended a life but not a legend.

By most accounts, Sutton, who died at age 62 just before having to go to federal prison for 18 months on moonshining counts, was an East Tennessee Barnum and Bailey-type of moonshiner, wearing the clothes and acting the stereotype of the white lightning producer.

Even his gravestone, behind his Cocke County home, helps build on the image with its inscription “Popcorn Says F--- You” fueling the legend beyond the final curtain.

That product, at least, of that legend thrives in a 2,000-square-foot warehouse on the back side of Marathon Village.

That’s where production manager/head distiller Travis Hixon toils to fuel the copper 1,000-gallon still – designed by Popcorn and bearing his four-word eulogy – with fermented mash, where it simmers, freeing the alcohol.

The still, the process, the formula, everything in this building was designed by the moonshiner who in the months leading to his death virtually adopted the young man he called “the Grocery Boy.”

“I got that nickname because when I’d go see him, he’d ask me to go to the store and get things,” says Jamey Grosser, who owns and operates Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey.

Grosser’s partner is Pam Sutton, Popcorn’s widow. Soft-spoken political idealist Hank Williams Jr. is an investor and has been involved in product publicity.

Grosser said the original plan was for him to be in partnership with ol’ Popcorn.

“I was going to East Tennessee to learn about whiskey in the Mason jar (in 2008). I started knocking on doors and they always said ‘the man you need to go see is Popcorn.’

“I tracked him down through his probation officer. I went up to his house, which is a whole crazy experience in itself, and he and I hit it off right away. We became best friends.

“He was at a big turning point in his life, and so was I.”

Grosser, who says Popcorn and his wife treated him like a son, told the older man he ought to make the white liquor legally.

The legend served as tutor, teaching retired motorcycle racer Grosser the recipe and the method.

Once the business plan was in place and just before he had to go to jail, Popcorn told Grosser not to “mess” up the recipe and to take care of his wife. Grosser didn’t realize it was going to be his last conversation with his friend.

After Sutton’s death, Grosser had the opportunity to sell the name. “Big companies tracked us down. ... They offered us stupid amounts of money to use Popcorn’s name.”

Grosser, who said he believed the big companies only wanted to use Popcorn as a marketing tool and were not so much interested in the white-lightning legacy, ignored the big bucks and continued with the plan formulated with his late friend .

Once perhaps sold from the trunk of Popcorn’s Fairlane, the Mason jars of joy are sold legally statewide, and Grosser is looking into expanding to Arkansas and beyond.

“Popcorn took so much pride in what he did. If it wasn’t the best, he would just throw it away,” says Grosser, noting that Sutton stuck with a traditional corn, rye, barley recipe “designed to drink off the still clear.”

“The whole thing about traditional whiskey is you are tasting the oak in the barrel. … We’re basically naked” and as easily mixable as vodka, gin and rum.

“You can get a jar of our whiskey and go home and make an old-fashioned, make a margarita, make a mojito. My favorite drink is Popcorn and lemonade.”

While the product now is being marketed in Mason jars, that’s just an eye-catcher for entering the marketplace. By the holidays, the whiskey will be coming in black bottles with an eye toward looking more legit and separating this legal product from its illegal cousins.

That’s part of an expansion plan that will lead to another plant, with 10 times the capacity of the Nashville distillery. Potential sites include Sutton’s home county, according to Grosser.

It’s about supply and demand. “We’ll do close to 12,000 cases here in the state this year. We sell every drop we make, and if I never expanded the distillery or never took another order, I’m sold out for the next 14 years.”