Friday, January 6, 2012

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Who Makes Popcorn Sutton's Tennessee White Whiskey? And Why Call it "Wild?"

As I recall, a bumper sticker on Popcorn Sutton's truck read Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Keep that in mind when talking about one of American moonshine's most prolific self-promoters.

Here's the deal with moonshine stories; there are more lies, falsehoods, deceptions, poorly understood half-truths, bluster, bravado, misquotes, and corrupted second-hand information than at a West Virginia Liars Contest. Many of these untruths are willful misdirection, but most — maybe even the majority— of them are simple misunderstandings, innocent of malice.

I think that's what landed on my desk yesterday morning.

Ever since the Discovery Channel began broadcasting its new series Moonshiners last month, the Whiskey Forge would get frequent spikes for searches about late moonshiner Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton. Even before that, he often showed up in the site traffic reports, but this was more than the usual pings here and there. Yesterday, surfers from across the US and Canada were digging into earlier stories about Sutton.

What gives? He's been dead for some time now. Why the sudden interest? Turns out Huffington Post ran a story about him and the new 93-proof white whiskey crafted on his persona and the moonshine he made. Also turns out that Huffington Post doesn't have an ear for Southern accents. The article includes a video in which Sutton's widow Pam talks a bit about the whiskey. It quotes her as saying:
“We have a distillery set up in Nashville, Tennessee. We can’t legally call it moonshine. We have to call it Tennessee Wild Whiskey, and also Popcorn’s liquor is the first white whiskey that the federal government has approved.”
Well, a few clarifications are in order. Mrs. Sutton doesn't call it "Tennessee Wild Whiskey" in the video. What she says is "Tennessee White Whiskey." If you hear talk or read of a new "wild" whiskey, double check that source.

Sutton's white whiskey, however, it not the first approved by the federal government. Just last Fall, Whiskey Advocate magazine ran Lew Bryson's reviews of more than a dozen unaged or minimally aged white whiskeys. There are plenty of such spirits out there and plenty more on the way.

The brand's website is here, but as of today, it's just a parking page. The distillery Pam Sutton mentions isn't one of Popcorn's old rigs in which he cranked out thousands upon thousands of gallons of untaxed liquor. "Nashville" was the giveaway. Popcorn operated in and around Maggie Valley, North Carolina, about midpoint between Asheville and Gatlinburg. No, Nashville and commercial white whiskey mean one thing to me and one thing only: this particular grain spirit got its (legal) start at DSP TN-15006, our good friends at Corsair Artisan Distillery, makers of some really lovely spirits.

Darek Bell of Corsair tells me Jamey Grosser originally used Corsair stills to make Sutton's whiskey, but just secured his own Distilled Spirits Plant permit. The TTB confirms it: Popcorn Sutton Distilling, LLC of Nashville, Tennessee has its DSP*. The day to day operations guy is distiller Travis Hixon, formerly brewer at Nashville's Blackstone Brewery.

Congratulations, boys, on getting your own place set up. Any chance we'll be seeing some legal versions of Popcorn's brandies?

*Edit 1/10/12 I had originally written that DSP TN-S-15009 was assigned to Popcorn Sutton Distilling, LLC, but Christian Grantham of Short Mountain Distillery corrected the record: HIS Tennessee distillery is TN-S-15009. I can only sympathize with distillers and the endless reams of paperwork they have to endure to get a legal distillery up and running. 

Goes well with:
  • Legal Moonshine? You've Been Conned, a bit I wrote this summer about the flawed concept of so-called "legal moonshine."
  • One of Corsair's standout whiskeys is the triple smoke American single malt. Attendees of last year's Tales of the Cocktail session on New American distilleries got to sample some, but if you missed out on that, do try tracking some down. 
  • Moonshiners runs on the Discovery Channel on Wednesdays. Last week's marathon of it is what made me late for a New Year's Eve party. I happen to like the show, even if—as are all "reality" shows—it is so clearly a product of artifice. Viz Popcorn's bumper sticker supra.
  • The West Virginia Liars Contest has been going on for decades. I've never been, but would love to make it one day. 


Christian said...

Actually, we're DSP-TN-15009 (Short Mountain Distillery). I accidentally commented on an older post someone shared with me, but I wrote a very similar post and was struck by the very same quote by Pam Sutton as you. It's surprising to imagine the conversation someone must have had with Pam to convince her they had to call it somethnig other than what it is: moonshine.

Matthew Rowley said...

Hey Christian ~

First off, good to hear from you. I was chatting with Max this morning about "that show" — there may be an expletive missing here — when I was accused of going soft for being so kind in my description of it. Well...maybe. The problems with "Moonshiners" are more substantial than just picking fly shit out of pepper, but some misunderstandings about Sutton's whiskey was the focus of this piece. Flat-out hoaxes are for another day.

Speaking of misunderstandings: the TTB lists Short Mountain as TN-S-15007. Lord knows, I believe every distiller in this country knows his or her DSP number by heart. It's a Friday and California is three hours behind most folks who can resolve this, but lemme see what I can do. Thanks for heads up. I don't always write about moonshine, but when I do, I like to have my facts straight.

As for what the conversation could've been that led to that statement...perhaps it's related to there being no "moonshine" standard of identity in the Beverage Alcohol Manual (Wallbanger and Pink Squirrel? Yes. Moonshine? No. Go figure.) But that's just supposition.

Christian said...

I'll email you a photo of our DSP from the TTB. Sometimes I see people mix the "DSP" (registry number) with the "permit number" that has the state ID as you have, but we are "permit number TN-S-15007," but our registry number is DSP-TN-15009. Emailing it now. Enjoy your postings :)

Anonymous said...

I was born and raised in TN. I've read all kinds of opinions and stories and such on popcorn sutton. I personally never heard of him until October of last year I was also 18 when he died! But if everyone is so curious about shine they should come on down and grab some real shine , the wild whiskey doesn't compare to shine. Its smooth and strong compared to other store bought liqour. But nothing compares to the real deal lightning on a hot tn summer night! Fresh shine is a breed of its own and will never be bought off a shelf.

Matthew Rowley said...

Christian ~ Thanks for helping me to make the correction. It would have been nice, while writing a piece correcting a journalist's error, not to introduce additional confusion into the public record myself.

Anonymous ~ "Fresh shine is a breed of its own and will never be bought off a shelf." You stole the words right out of my mouth. I couldn't agree more. And while I would encourage anyone in the vicinity to try some Tennessee moonshine, I would be remiss not to mention the stellar examples available in San Diego, Kansas City, Portland, Manhattan, New Orleans, and other points around the US. Good moonshine is very Tennessee — but that's not the only place one can find it.

Dusty Young said...

I just bought a bottle of popcorns white whiskey and I will say this for 30.00 its a real closeness to the off shelf deal. I live in west Tn and have had it all and I can say its good and Def enjoyable, long live popcorns dream. Call it what u want, its shine with tax.

mwilliams said...

I'd like to connect with Pam Sutton to discuss a Smokey Mountains fiber art concept based on Popcorn. Can anyone point me in the proper direction? Thanks so much yall.