Straight, no chaser. That’s how Pam Sutton drinks her husband’s now-legal moonshine and recommended it to customers at Johnson City’s Happy Hour Liquor and Wine Saturday evening.
But it hasn’t always been legal, and that’s how Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton became famous. He’s one of the region’s most well-known ’shiners, having been featured on the cult classic film “This is the Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make,” in the documentary “Hillbilly: The Real Story,” on the History Channel, and on the Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners.”
Despite his notoriety, Sutton was taken in by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for carrying out what he thought of as his heritage: making moonshine. He died in an apparent suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in 2009, said to have been done to avoid his federal sentence.
Now, his wife, Pam, carries on her husband’s work in a more legal business. She runs the Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey company, which produces South Appalachia-style moonshine, brought to customers through Popcorn’s design and wishes.
She said he treated her like a queen. Sutton said she loved him to death, and was elated to be carrying on his liquor legacy.
A positive about her Johnson City stop was that the appearance for her company was close to home. Although she’s been reaping a great deal of success in the ever-popular legal moonshine business, she said she’s still a Cocke County girl, and is proud of it.
Sutton was signing limited edition bottles of her moonshine and posters for customers, as well as handing out recipe cards to let customers know, if they must, how to mix a Popcorn Sutton-styled cocktail.
Ronda Sawyer, of Johnson City, was buying her father, O’Dell, a bottle of Sutton’s moonshine, and when chatting with Pam said she was sorry that her husband didn’t get to see his moonshine sell legally.
Sutton shared that he got the ball rolling to allow for legal moonshine, and died knowing that it was on the verge of happening.
What’s better about shining when it’s legal than when it was illegal? Sutton said it was a lot harder then. And that’s harder in a figurative sense — the alcohol content of the Sutton shine sits at about 46.5 percent.
That doesn’t mean she hasn’t experienced any adversity with the business. The reason the bottles are currently in a limited edition variety is because of a lawsuit brought on by Jack Daniels just a few weeks ago about using their bottle design. Originally, Popcorn had to use whatever jars that were around him for moonshine, but always wanted his product to go in bottles. Now that the bottle lawsuit is upon them, Sutton and her company aren’t sure which design will hold her concoction next, but hopes to hold to her husband’s wishes of not using jars like other available moonshine varieties.
She carries a motto her mother taught her long ago.
“My mama always said, ‘don’t change for no one,’ ” Sutton said. “And I don’t. I love meeting down to earth people like me.”
And, what the customers liked best about meeting Sutton is what she likes best about meeting them.
Happy Hour customer Debbie Cox was buying a signed bottle as an early Christmas gift for her son, Travis, who was waiting out in the car while she met with Sutton. She said her son's grandfather had been a bootlegger, and that he wasn’t going to drink the Sutton brew, but was going to keep it as a collector’s item.
Ryan Wagner, owner of the store, said he grew up in Erwin, and grew up having the non-legal moonshine around him quite a bit, saying he had connections to get it whenever he felt inclined. When moonshine became legal just a few years ago, Wagner thought it would be a fad that would pass, but hasn’t seen any decline in its popularity.
He attributes that popularity to the regional significance and moonshining heritage in the area.
And while some were leaving with these signed limited edition bottles to preserve a piece of the regional heritage, Sutton said that wasn’t why her husband was in the business.
“He used to say, ‘I don’t make lookin’ liquor. I make drinkin’ liquor,’ ” Sutton said.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed Debbie Cox's son as her husband.