Sheriff who busted Popcorn Sutton talks Newport distillery

12:37 AM, May 2, 2013   |    comments
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The coveted recipe of iconic East Tennessee moonshiner Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton will once again be cooked in Cocke County.  This time it is legal.

Sutton's recipe has been in legal production for around a year and a half in Nashville, with the goal to eventually set up a bigger shop in the mountains of East Tennessee.

"This is kind of the dream becoming a reality, finally," said Jamey Grosser, apprentice to Popcorn Sutton and master distiller.

Wednesday was moving day for the largest items to be put in place at the 50,000 square foot space on Highway 25 70 in Newport.  It took years of work and changes to the law, but Grosser said it was worth the effort.

"This will be a factory producing a lot of whiskey.  It is basically start to finish in this building.  We do all the mashing, we do all the distilling, we'll do all the bottling right here 100 percent in Cocke County," said Grosser.  "This is not moonshine.  Moonshine is illegal, meaning you don't pay taxes.  There is nothing illegal about the liquid whatsoever.  White whiskey is truly the only authentic American white spirit. So what we're selling is actually white whiskey, because we pay taxes."

Sutton's brand of white whiskey comes in a pitch black matte finish bottle with his image emblazoned on the bottle.  Grosser admits that is a departure from how many moonshine operations market their products in the iconic glass jars.

"Popcorn used to tell me himself all the time, 'my whiskey is too damn good to be put in a jar, but that's all I can afford.' This was Popcorn's goal, once we can afford it and get up and running, we'll go in a bottle his liquid deserves."

The investment of millions of dollars has allowed the distillery to move into the new facility.  When it is up and running this August, Grosser said it will be the largest pot-still whiskey operation in America.

"Right now we are in four states, but we hope to be able to expand across the United States and even the world," said Grosser.

The enormous space is a far cry from the old moonshine still hidden on Sutton's property in Parrotsville.  Now the operation will be clearly visible from the main highway through Newport.  That happens to be the same road where you will find the Cocke County Sheriff's Office.

"This is actually 'shine that we confiscated from another case that we worked just a few months ago. It's an issue all throughout the Appalachian Mountains," said Cocke County Sheriff Armando Fontes as he handled a clear glass jar of homemade liquor.

Fontes was a sergeant in 2007 when he discovered where there was smoke, there was a large fire from the production of moonshine.

"When I was on patrol there was a huge fire on his [Sutton's] residence, which was a gated area," said Fontes.  "I arrived on the scene and that is when I first encountered Popcorn Sutton coming down the driveway. I remember very vividly to this day he said, 'Son, don't tell anybody what you see here.' So I had a choice at that moment to either ignore what I knew was most likely a major still, or to do the right thing. And I did the right thing."

Fontes not only avoided turning a blind eye, he captured the moment with several photographs that are now on display in his office.  One photo is a close-up of Sutton's face with a smoldering still in the background.

"That is probably one of the only existing pictures of him at a burned down still," laughed Fontes.  "This was the result of an investigation that led into many other investigations which resulted in other agencies actually prosecuting Popcorn Sutton. I had some people that would come to me and say, 'Thank you so much for doing the right thing.' I had a few others that were not happy I did what I was supposed to do."

Sutton eventually pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2008.  Sutton committed suicide in 2009 just before he was set to report to prison.

"He could have been very wealthy if he followed the law and started his own legitimate business, but he chose to be the rebel and not abide by what the law said," said Fontes. "Throughout time the people who have evaded the law have been romanticized and turned into heroes.  To me, the real heroes are the pastors and the missionaries and the volunteers who go out in their communities and make a difference to improve people's lives."

With Popcorn's brew set for a resurrection in Cocke County, Fontes welcomes it home as a legal liquor operation that will attract tourists to Newport.

"You know, they're following the law and so we have to support it," said Fontes.

"In my mind, Popcorn was always cool and this is just kind of his coming out party," said Grosser.  "He is just such an American icon. But now he can kind of look down and smile and know that his dream has become a reality. It's pretty special."

Popcorn Sutton Distilleries plans to be up and running in Newport this August.  The location will provide tours and sell merchandise when it opens.  Grosser said the final alcoholic product will be available in liquor stores.  In the long-term the company hopes to obtain the necessary licenses and permits to also sell the liquor on-site.

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