“I’m so happy that it’s Popcorn’s and he would be very happy because this is what he wanted,” said Pam
The press conference was underway. Joe Baker – founder of Ole Smoky Moonshine – and Pam Sutton – widow of legendary outlaw moonshiner Popcorn Sutton were officially introducing Ole Smoky’s Popcorn moonshine style “Likker” and straight bourbon whiskey. As they were talking, a figure shuffled to the front of the room. He had a little bit of a stooped walk, moving with the aid of a hiking stick and a long-white scraggly beard. He wore overalls, a flannel shirt and a puffy vest for warmth. For a second, out of the corner of my eye, it seemed as if the late Popcorn himself had decided to bless the festivities. But it wasn’t. It was Popcorn’s old running buddy and “sidekick,” JB Rader, a moonshining legend in his own right.
Rader moved to the front of the press conference. He shook Baker’s hand, hugged Pam and gave his official blessing to the proceedings. “It’s been a long time a-coming,” Rader said. “JB was his sidekick, he helped him make it and he knew exactly how to do it,” Pam said. “I’m glad to have JB here, I didn’t know he was going to make it.” “Got a little late start,” Rader said before moving over to a chair in the corner and observing the proceedings with a look of bemusement.
RELATED VIDEO: Pam Sutton: Ole Smoky’s New Moonshine Tastes “Just Like Popcorn’s”
Rader wasn’t the only special guest at the event. Tennessee’s First District congresswoman, U.S. Rep. Dianna Harshbarger also made a surprise appearance to show her support for the endeavor. “It’s an honor to be here,” Harshbarger said. “I represent the great people of East Tennessee and I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.” Harshbarger called Baker and Pam Sutton “dear friends.” “This is history-making,” Harshbarger said.
“For a century we’ve had these moonshiners making their concoctions in the Smoky Mountains. And we’re here to celebrate our Appalachian roots. Nobody can mess with us when it comes to that…,” she said. “We’re going honor Popcorn’s legacy. He was a master of what they call it, white likker? “I tell people there’s no greater place to serve than East Tennessee. The people are sweet and the moonshine is sweeter, sometimes.”
IN THIS ARTICLE
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Who was Popcorn Sutton?
Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton was a Maggie Valley, North Carolina native who lived in the mountains of Western North Carolina and East Tennessee. He was a career moonshiner who operated outside the established laws of the land to sell his recipe of “likker.” He was a master marketer who rose to prominence with a book and video about himself and his likker that gained national attention, including from the New York Times.
His distinctive figure, dress and “colorful” way of expressing himself only added to his reputation as a master craftsman in the art of moonshine. He took his own life in 2009 via carbon monoxide poisoning rather than report for an 18-month prison sentence.
“Popcorn lived on his own terms and Popcorn died on his own terms,” Pam said. “He wasn’t going to have the government tell him what to do and I hate that. So now I’m just trying to work with Joe to keep his legacy alive, keep his memory alive and give everybody what he wanted them to have. The good taste of likker.”
Joe Baker and Pam Sutton at the Ole Smoky Popcorn Sutton brand launch party on Dec. 8 (photo by Bill Burris/TheSmokies.com)
What is Ole Smoky Distillery?
Ole Smoky Distillery opened in Gatlinburg in 2010, shortly after Tennessee laws were relaxed to allow new licenses for the distilling of spirits. Under the leadership of Baker and his team, Ole Smoky quickly grew and established itself as the preeminent distillery in the region. Today, Ole Smoky distributes its spirits around the world.
In an exclusive interview with TheSmokies.com, Baker – whose family has been in the East Tennessee Mountains for well over 200 years – talked about the distillery’s success and how that success has enabled him to build partnerships that are preserving mountain icons such as Ober Mountain and now, Popcorn Sutton’s moonshining legacy.
“There’s no place like home, right,” he said. “For me to be able to invest in our community and celebrate people like Popcorn, who have been part of the larger community – not just here in Gatlinburg – in the Smoky Mountain area … that’s a big deal and I’m proud to be a part of that celebration. “We’ve been blessed to be from this area, to celebrate it and grow it in a responsible way that is good for everybody. This product launch with Pam is a continuation of that, trying to do right by her and the community at large and celebrate somebody who meant a lot to the area.”
Both the whiskey and the likker are 100 proof – Popcorn’s preferred proof. And the likker is derived from Popcorn’s original moonshine recipe. A fact attested to by Pam and blessed by the presence of Rader.
Does it taste like Popcorn’s moonshine?
“Popcorn would be so proud of this day,” Pam said. “It’s all he ever wanted. He wanted to be taken care of and he wanted to have his likker to stay out there … I have to give Joe credit. I’ve tried it. It tastes just like Popcorn’s … the white does.”
In the 15 years since Popcorn’s death, Pam had worked with other distilleries to try and achieve the results that she and Baker finally teamed up to achieve. In that same interview, Pam discussed the process of finding the right partner to market Popcorn’s moonshine and preserve her late husband’s legacy.
“First of all, I am so proud that Joe Baker approached me and offered to do this because we had it on the market before, but it didn’t work out,” she explained. “I’m so happy that it’s Popcorn’s and he would be very happy because this is what he wanted. I’ve been working on it for 15 years now and it has finally come around to where we’ve got it on the market and everybody seems to love it. I know I do.
“(Baker) was born and raised in Appalachia. If you come from California, you cannot appreciate what we have here in the mountains. Joe has done a wonderful job. I’ve had ‘em both. I love them both and you just have to try it. Both of them are 100 proof, that’s what Popcorn would have wanted.”
Speaking to the larger crowd, Pam Sutton added a slight word of warning. “It’s very smooth, just like Popcorn’s, so you have to be careful,” she said. “You’ll have it drunk before you realized it … it don’t take much.”