The Rise of Popcorn Sutton

When John Lunn left Diageo’s George Dickel Distillery for the relatively unknown Tennessee brand Popcorn Sutton in March, the entire whiskey world was surprised. I personally thought Lunn was this country’s most-underrated distiller, and Diageo was grooming him for something bigger. Lunn managed facilities in Kentucky and testified during the 2014 Tennessee Barrel Law debates that became a classic waste of everybody’s time.

As it turns out, it was in the early legislative meetings 2015 New Bottlethat Lunn’s current employer planted the seed for him to leave Dickel. “Back in 2013, I really got a chance to know John, watch his work and {became} really impressed with him, as a person. I liked the fact that he’s from Tennessee, and thought that he could be a good steward of the story and the legacy that we have,” Megan Browning Kvamme, CEO of Popcorn Sutton Distilling, told me in a phone interview Tuesday.

Named after an historic Tennessee moonshiner who died in 2009, Popcorn Sutton is owned by J&M Concepts, which also owns the popular energy drink line Realtree Outdoor Energy.

Lunn’s hire caught many people by surprise, because Popcorn Sutton kind of went dark after a trademark dispute with Brown-Forman. Popcorn Sutton moved from Nashville to Newport, and I honestly thought they were going out of business.

Then, they hired John Lunn, and suddenly, Popcorn’s 50,000-square-foot facility rises to the top of my must-see list. (I’ve not visited the new distillery).

Lunn tells me Popcorn Sutton will release an aged whiskey later this year. He’s not saying what, but says the off-the-still proof is usually between 160 and 165 proof. To be a bourbon or Tennessee whiskey, current federal and state regulations dictate the final off-the-still proof cannot be higher than 160.

Lunn would not offer a mashbill, but said it will be a whiskey made of corn, rye and barley and will have a barrel-entry proof of 125. He did not comment on age.

But the elephant in the room is why he left Dickel.

“It did catch everybody at Dickel and Diageo by surprise. I love Dickel, I love the brand, but the opportunity to be a craft brand is an opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up,” Lunn told me. “There’s a lot more opportunity to be on the floor, help making cuts, watching the stills run, and the latitude going forward to be creative and explore what you can do with pot stills.”

This photo was taken and provided by Diageo when Lunn worked as the master distiller for George Dickel. He is now the master distiller for Popcorn Sutton.
This photo was taken and provided by Diageo when Lunn worked as the master distiller for George Dickel. He is now the master distiller for Popcorn Sutton.

Lunn’s working with two 2,500-gallon stripping pot stills and one 1,500-gallon pot still to create the 100-year-old recipe. Popcorn Sutton is contract distilling for other brands, too, a nice way to supplement the brand’s revenue until it’s fully national. Coincidently, Popcorn was once contract distilled by another distillery.

Now, it has John Lunn and is 100-percent mashed, distilled and bottled at the Newport facility. This week, it announced the launch of a new bottle. New packaging may seem like much, but for Kvamme, it’s a big move for her “nationalization” of Popcorn Sutton. “The bottle is a repositioning for us, trying to get to a new place and seeing ourselves on the shelves next to our friends, George and Jack, and of the same category,” she says. “Given our roots, that’s where we really think the product should be.”

So, Jack and George, watch out, Popcorn’s coming for your shelf space.

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