Even Old Moonshiners Knew the Value of Branding

Popcorn Sutton's mug shot: How you want your moonshiner to look.
Popcorn Sutton's mug shot: How you want your moonshiner to look. Photo: U.S. Marshals Service

Branding is big in the booze biz. As New York once put it, “The man behind Grey Goose vodka understood that Americans want to pay more — You just have to give them a good story.” And a story in today’s Times makes it clear that even moonshiners from the Tennessee backwoods know the power of branding.

Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton was “probably the most famous [moonshiner] ever to work out of Cocke County, which long had a claim as the nation’s moonshining capital.” And, to be fair, the guy does sound awesome:

A North Carolinian by birth, Mr. Sutton learned to distill in Cocke County, where he was known as an affable rogue and a maker of potent but fine-tasting corn whiskey. He lived in a cluttered cabin on a wooded hill where he also built his stills, gave pistols to the incoming sheriffs and fathered so many children that no one has any idea of the exact accounting.

In other words, he was the prototypical moonshiner, complete with a scraggly beard and worn-out overalls. And, the Gray Lady notes, ol’ Popcorn had a flair for self-promotion: He wrote a memoir, starred in a moonshine documentary, and even printed up business cards, despite the fact that what he sold was illegal. In some ways, it sorta sounds like he was the Captain Morgan of moonshine, but with the added benefit of having once been a real person. But if you were in the business of selling corn whiskey — which is basically legal moonshine, and which has exploded in popularity over the last couple years — Popcorn would be exactly the kind of mascot you’d want to use. Lo and behold, that’s sort of what’s happened.

Back in 2008, Popcorn supposedly sold his moonshine recipe to a 29-year-old former motocross racer named Jamey Grosser. Popcorn killed himself in 2009, but Grosser has since partnered with Hank Williams Jr., (that Hank Williams Jr.) and is now selling a product called … Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey, supposedly based on Popcorn’s original recipe.

This is a very good story! So good, in fact, that the country’s third-biggest newspaper has now relayed it to all of America — probably the best publicity that a tiny liquor brand from Tennessee could have hoped for.

Yesterday’s Moonshiner, Today’s Microdistiller [NYT]
Related: The Cocktail Creationist [NYM]

Even Old Moonshiners Knew the Value of Branding