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.