Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Pin It

Felony, She Wrote

Sutton, who favored a long, unkempt beard and overalls,
typified the American moonshiner. Devoted to his hobby
and fiercely opposed to the law that prohibits it,
Sutton produced high-proof spirits at home.

~ Eric Arnold

If Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton was a hobbyist distiller, then I'm Angela Lansbury. This week published Eric Arnold's short piece Moonshine: More than a Hobby. It seems that Arnold's heart is in the right place, but he didn't quite get his head around the concept. Starting off with the recently-deceased Popcorn Sutton was a clue that yet another article was about to flub the home distilling story.

Sutton, who seemingly killed himself this Spring, was indeed a moonshiner, but for him moonshine was a business. Max Watman, writing for Gourmet, says that when Sutton was busted by authorities (again), his three stills each had a capacity of 1,000 gallons. That's not a hobby. Joe Blow or Jane Smith making a gallon of brandy or whiskey at a time for family and friends—that's a hobby.

Both moonshining and home distilling draw on long traditions of folk distilling—and both are fine by me. But let's keep our terms straight. Sutton got busted because he was making massive amounts of illegal liquor and flaunting his activities through a book, interviews, and even an Emmy-nominated documentary by filmmaker Neal Hutcheson. Trying to sell nearly 850 gallons of shine to authorities just isn't on the same scale as trading baseball cards. That's a capitalist venture of a shrewd self-marketer.

Goes well with:
  • Max Watman's book, Chasing the White Dog, will feature more Popcorn stories—as true as one can get with Sutton, I imagine. It's scheduled for a 2010 release and I, for one, can't wait. Subtitled An Amateur Outlaw's Adventures in Moonshine, Watman does indeed look into the business end of making illicit liquor—which is solidly where Sutton's story belongs.
  • Paul Clarke, writing in Imbibe, gets the hobbyist distilling story right. His 2009 article New Moon Rising is one of the more articulate and accurate portrayals of what's going on in home distilling these days. That is, it jives most consistently with what I've been seeing develop over the last 20 years.
  • Renee Davidson's piece Whiskey Geeks Keep Moonshine Tradition Alive for was one of the first modern articles that set aside outdated notions about mountaineer moonshiners and concentrated on what was really happening in the field.


Max Watman said...

Well said, Matt. The terms do need to be clear.

"Most moonshiners start out as home wine or beer makers," is far from the truth, for instance. Hobby distillers do. I suppose I've met a couple of moonshiners who have wives who make dandelion wine or something like that. But you'd have a better chance winning the lottery than you would running into a real moonshiner at a home brew shop.

Matthew Rowley said...

Max ~

It's worth recalling Popcorn's bumper sticker on his Toyota — "Don't let the truth get in the way of a good story."

Captain Awesome said...

Yeah, the moonshine I've uncovered has largely been the work of maniacal ex cons who don't want a real jobs. Also, most of it has come in used Captain Morgan bottles to emulate white rum, but if you pour some out and put a flame to it the burn was lengthy and mixed greens and blues, which I presume is the mark of a fine moonshine?