Saturday, February 27, 2010

Documentary: The Last One by Sucker Punch Pictures

It all started with Glen Thunder Corn Whiskey. I picked it up at a local liquor store and reviewed it, oh, about three months ago. In case you missed it, it's here. That review, technically, isn't fair anymore because that was my first taste of straight corn whiskey, un-aged and glorious. This little bottle of corn-scented ambrosia prompted me to investigate the nature of "white dog", or spirit straight off the still. It intrigued me, really. I have tried a lot of aged spirits from three years old to eighteen. I hadn't, at that point, tried anything fresh off a still. It was, in its own way, uniquely delicious. I then decided to go more in-depth into the topic. What's the point of being a booze journalist if you don't follow through, right?

I later tried all sorts of raw whiskey. The Hudson New York Corn Whiskey from Tuthilltown (which I bought a bottle of and will be reviewing formally soon) and Georgia Moon (which is a mild corn whiskey that's more gimmick than substance) were both good in their own way, with my favorite being the Tuthilltown. Searching for this white dog, this white lighting', this corn squeezins', has resulted in research in all forms of media. It is, predominantly, in the form of moonshine. Long has new make white spirit been associated with the Appalachian tradition of making sweet, sweet hooch in illicit stills. Unfortunately, as many have noted, the old-timey tradition of quality 'shine given away to friends and family or used in medicine is gone, replaced with a massive illegal trade in high margin, low quality spirits. Pappy don't have a copper still in the back yard anymore. They're often crudely formed of cheap metal (often unsuitable for potable alcohol production) and sometimes they're even cut with harsh chemicals that mimic the "burn" and fire of a high proof spirit. Long gone are the days of distilling for use rather than profit. However, there are a few journalists still soldiering on to capture what is information is left from the dying breed of traditionalist distillers. One of these heroic men is Neal Hutchinson, creator of Sucker Punch Pictures and the documentary "The Last One".

It stars the late "Popcorn" Sutton, one of the last vocal and prominent distillers. Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton was a spitfire of an old coot. On the outside, he looked like an old Snuffy Smith cartoon with his stained overalls, long beard, unfiltered cigarettes and Model A Ford. In reality, he had the trappings of a normal man: cell phone, Toyota. Many feel (like Max Watman) that people idolize him not for what he does but what he represents: a time gone by. I idolize him because he's had the brass balls to continue distilling in the face of the ATF and revenuers. He'd been caught a few times and damn if that was gonna slow this crazy old bastard down. I have to respect that.

The plot of the film is elegant in its simplicity: the last run of moonshine that Sutton will ever do. It follows the entire process, interspersed with historians and first hand accounts. The full gauntlet is run: from picking a spot to the proofing party. You can watch Sutton find a place, build a still, ferment the corn mash, charge the still, run the wash through, and end up with the final product which a friend of him cuts down to appropriate proof. All of the liquor he makes he gives away. This is the gist of the movie. But it's so much more than that. It really shows not just an old man doing what he learned to do despite the laws preventing him, but a kind of dedication. He chronicles the batches he's made, distinguishing between "fighting kinds" and "lovin kinds" of moonshine. You see him sit around in the company of friends, picking a banjo and smoking a cig. The best part of the movie, for me, is listening to Popcorn laugh. It's infectious. A light hiccuping laugh of mirth and joy, it speaks to not the booze he's cranking out but the history of the man; his ups and downs. The film evolves far beyond the still and alcohol but to the personal story of a man; the history of a region.

It is with a heavy heart that I have to say that the story doesn't have a happy ending. Shortly after a conviction and jail sentencing for illegal ethanol production, Popcorn Sutton committed suicide by way of carbon monoxide poisoning. It saddens me that I'd never get to meet Popcorn and share a jar with him. I'd never get to hear what he has to say, learn what he has to teach. But, luckily, his legacy lives on in The Last One and I'm certainly glad of it. The only draw-back to this DVD? It's too damn short to encapsulate the man that is Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton.


  1. I saw this on the Documentary Channel, but missed the first 10 minutes. I checked a later showing, but nothing. I read about his death and bought the DVD to support his family. Too bad the laws that protect us, drive us to our graves.

  2. I enjoyed the documentary "The last One" very much. This man surly got a raw deal from the federal court. Although I am not a religious man, I have prayed that the federal judge that would not let Mr. Sutton serve his sentence through home confinement,suffer from a painful bout of cancer and experience a painful death.

  3. I very much enjoyed this documentary "The Last One". As is told by Popcorn his self, he payed taxes on everything he used to make his still and produce his shine. Why should he turn around and pay taxes to our sorry government again. That just shows you the greed of our very own government! Popcorn was just an average man not bothering a soul.

  4. I saw this story on PBS and liked it so well I bought a copy.

    My grandfather was an immigrant from Poland, and eventually pioneer homesteaded in northern Minnesota, very early 1900's. My mother once in a while told stories of helping him when he tended his still. It was the days of prohibition, and loggers. Loggers without a drink didn't work out well. Mom was about 8 years old, and chosen from among the 9 children they had to help grandpa because she wouldn't squeal on grandpa. They'd go out to grandpa's still, near what today is Voyageurs National Park wilderness, and tend the still and so on. Everyone knew where to get some moonshine, and that grandpa made it. People would leave some money someplace, and later a jar could be picked up someplace.

    Of course it was illegal, and the law had to be enforced, so every once in a while the sheriff would catch grandpa, haul him in to the nearby justice of the peace (judge), and grandpa would be fined, but not jailed. It was a roundabout way of taxation! After one such episode, the judge laughed and asked grandpa when he was going to make some more, because a wedding was coming up! I think the fine was $25. Everyone was happy. All prohibition really accomplished was establish the Mafia. Today it's the same thing with drug prohibitions. (But do be smart, care about yourself, and stay away from meth and heroin.)

    Mom remembered helping grandpa bury some Mason jars of moonshine in the woods sometimes, and he'd forget where he hid them. She often chuckled and said she'd love to go back and find some of those jars sometime, but they're probably grown in with some huge tree roots.

    Naturally, these stories sparked some interest, and many years ago I talked with a fellow I worked with who helped his dad make moonshine when he was a boy on the farm. The two of us traded information, until we finally knew enough how to make it. We did some things differently than Popcorn Sutton. For one thing, we operated much smaller and only made it for ourselves, just to keep the tradition and knowledge alive! Anything that was questionable, we took the safe route. If you do a poor job of it you can end up making poison, which is the other reason it's illegal. (The first reason is they want the liquor tax!)