The late, great East Tennessee moonshiner Popcorn Sutton once asked, "What the f*** is a mixologist?"
Sutton believed liquor was supposed to be "country simple," if not downright illegal. He ran a bootleg distillery in Cocke County, Tennessee, and in 2009, he took his own life to avoid serving jail time for running one of the biggest moonshine operations in the country.
Now his legacy, Popcorn Sutton's Tennessee White Whiskey, lives on at a liquor store near you.
Sutton's famous moonshine is on the up-and-up with the help of former Supercross racer and friend Jamey Grosser. Sutton's whiskey, an un-aged, straight-from-the-still version of its cousin Jack Daniels, is the first white whiskey to be approved by the federal government. (White whiskey is clear, because it goes straight from the still to the bottle; aged whiskey or bourbon gets a signature brown hue from the oak aging barrel.)
Popcorn Sutton's namesake hit the shelves in East Tennessee in October and came to Memphis liquor stores in November. With publicity from the Discovery Channel series Moonshiners and financial backing from Hank Williams Jr., Grosser is pushing Sutton's whiskey toward the national market.
Grosser met Sutton in 2008. Tired of "riding for bullshit brands" of liquor, Grosser went looking for authentic moonshiners and wound up east of Knoxville in Cocke County.
"I banged on some doors, and people told me I had to go see Popcorn," Grosser says.
The two bonded immediately over "women and whiskey." Both had limited formal schooling, and both were committed to their respective passions: Sutton, who took over the third-generation moonshining business as a young man, and Grosser, who began his motorcycle racing career at 16 years old.
"Popcorn just knew whiskey," Grosser says. "I knew one thing my whole life, too."
Eager to carry on the East Tennessee tradition, Grosser served as a sort of apprentice to the distillery. His apprenticeship couldn't have come at a better time: Less than two years later, a federal crackdown would bring Sutton face-to-face with the law. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison, and days before his prison term was set to begin, he took his own life by carbon monoxide poisoning.
Grosser and Sutton's wife, Pam, have since made it their mission to carry on Sutton's memory, a slice of Tennessee history with real-life outlaws and folk heroes. Enlisting the financial support of Hank Williams Jr., the two applied for a license to make the whiskey.
Sutton has become the stuff of legend. The launch party for his whiskey brand drew in stars such as Kid Rock and Martina McBride. Since Grosser and Williams began distributing the whiskey legally, Grosser says they haven't been able to keep up with the demand.
For a limited time, Popcorn Sutton's Tennessee White Whiskey comes in the kind of rustic mason jar you would expect of moonshine, bottled at an undisclosed location outside of Nashville. Grosser says they use the stills and equipment crafted by Sutton himself and plan to get back to Cocke County once distilleries are licensed there.
"We want to move to Popcorn's property in East Tennessee someday," Grosser says. "For now, the whole distillery is mounted on skids so we can move it back to Cocke County."
Grosser describes the taste of white whiskey as milder than whiskey aged in oak barrels — perfect for a white Manhattan or even a margarita.
"Whiskey from a wood barrel has a specific flavor," Grosser says. "It tastes good with a Pepsi or Coke, but it isn't versatile like white whiskey."
You can find Popcorn Sutton's Tennessee White Whiskey at most liquor stores in Memphis for around $30.