March 16, 2015 – In a move that may be a sign of things to come, former George Dickel Master Distiller John Lunn turned up today as the new Master Distiller at the Popcorn Sutton Distillery in Newport, Tennessee. Lunn’s last day at Dickel and Diageo was Friday, following 14 years with the world’s largest distiller as both Master Distiller and manager at George Dickel and Southern Hub director overseeing operations at the Stitzel-Weller site in the Louisville suburb of Shively, Kentucky. Lunn had not disclosed his new employer publicly until today.
“It’s the complete opposite end of the spectrum, going from the world’s largest to a really small craft, true craft distillery,” Lunn said in a telephone interview with WhiskyCast’s Mark Gillespie at the end of his first day on the job. “I think for me, it’s a great chance to learn the other side of the business…but what really appealed to me was the great story, a real authentic story that we’ve got all the proof to back it up, so there’s none of that ‘is it true, is it not true’ and a great product to go along with it.” He is the latest in what may become a growing number of distillers to leave multinational companies for smaller-scale whisky makers. Last month, Brown-Forman master blender Marianne Barnes left the Louisville-based giant to join Peristyle LLC’s craft distillery project on the site of the historic Old Taylor Distillery near Versailles, Kentucky.
Listen to Mark Gillespie’s interview with John Lunn:
Lunn said he had plenty of opportunities within Diageo, but his priority was to remain in his home state of Tennessee where his family still lives. Lunn and his family will relocate from their home near the Dickel distillery in Tullahoma to Newport, which is located about 30 miles east of Knoxville. “Newport’s pretty close to Gatlinburg, where we’ve taken a lot of vacations in the past, and it’s pretty much right on the doorstep of where Popcorn was moving and making his moonshine,” Lunn said.
Popcorn Sutton remains a polarizing figure in the whisky business, nearly five years after he committed suicide rather than report to prison following his conviction on several moonshine-related charges. His fans regard him as a legendary bootlegger producing moonshine from his family’s 100-year-old recipe in Cocke County and challenging authority figures throughout his life, while his critics consider him to be a criminal who could have produced legal whiskey had he chosen to. Before his death, he passed along the family recipe and distilling methods to Jamey Grosser, who founded the legal Popcorn Sutton Distillery in Nashville in 2010. The company’s new distillery opened last year in Newport following Cocke County’s decision to legalize microdistilleries.
The distillery produces Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey, along with the “Mrs. Sutton’s” line of flavored liqueurs named for Sutton’s widow Pam. The company recently updated its packaging to clear “Mason Jar” style bottles after settling a trademark lawsuit with Brown-Forman over its original bottle design, a squared-off black bottle that Brown-Forman claimed was too similar to its packaging for Jack Daniel’s. The white whiskey is now available in 20 US states, with plans to add an additional five states by the end of 2015. Lunn hinted that his experience with aged whiskey may come in handy as the company looks at new product ideas. “You never know what we might try up here now,” he laughed.
Editor’s note: This story was updated following a telephone interview with John Lunn.
Links: Popcorn Sutton’s Whiskey