Cosby, Tennessee straddles Cocke and Sevier counties and boasts a rich history. This small town is best known for its moonshine, a tradition that dates back to the early 19th century. You cannot visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park without taking a detour to this quaint little town.
Origins of Cosby
The area around Cosby was once the hunting grounds for local Cherokee. Before white settlers arrived, the Cherokee used the land to support themselves. When the earliest settlers arrived, the Cherokee harassed them and stole their livestock.
After early settlers built their homes in Cosby, they created a frontier outpost. Once the 19th century arrived, the occasional skirmishes with local Cherokee calmed down.
There is disagreement between historians around the history of Cosby’s name. Some believe the creek and town were named after Jonathan Cosby, an early settler and liquor distiller. Others believe that the area was named after Dr. James Cosby, a Revolutionary War veteran with claims to significant portions of the area’s land.
As early as 1838, though, locals called the creek running through town “Cosby Creek.” The town was later incorporated under the name Cosby.
Cosby during the Civil War
Residents of Cosby were divided during the Civil War. Because Cosby’s land sits at the border between north and south, the townspeople were divided between the Confederacy and the Union.
After the war devastated this region, Cosby’s residents slowly recovered. It was not until the late 19th century that this region fully recovered from the impact of war. The railroad and local lumber mills created a thriving economy for the area.
The Great Depression and Early Moonshining
The Great Depression was especially difficult for residents of Cosby. In the early 1900s, most of the residents of this town were farmers or lumber mill workers. When the Depression hit, most of the area’s mills were forced to close. Farmers struggled to sell crops as the depression devastated the local economy.
During this time, many farmers turned to moonshining to provide for their families. Although corn liquor had been made for decades, moonshine became a thriving part of Cosby’s underbelly during the Depression.
In 1940, Cosby’s land was partially incorporated into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The national park status of these lands did little to slow the growth of moonshining in the area.
Prohibition and a Boon in Moonshining
Cosby is known as “The Moonshining Capital of the World.” The coves and forests of the national park provided the perfect cover for moonshining operations. During prohibition, lawmakers prohibited the production and consumption of alcohol. With the restrictive laws in place, the demand for bootlegged liquor increased. In the Appalachian Mountains, moonshining became a thriving economy, providing alcohol for the entire region.
Moonshining faced a temporary setback with the sugar shortage after World War II. During this time, the government offered free sugar to farmers with beehives. Because of this provision, farmers and moonshiners built more beehives. The region was covered in beehives so that the local moonshiners could have enough sugar to create their liquor.
There was significant tension between law enforcement and the moonshining operations in the area. When law enforcement approached, moonshiners would light dynamite to warn other nearby distillers.
Moonshiners used a variety of methods to avoid detection. Some of the area’s caves were used to create moonshine in secret.
A few moonshiners informed on other distillers to reduce the competition. Violence erupted in some areas where competition between moonshiners was the fiercest. Although the prominence of moonshine-related crime dwindled when prohibition was lifted, Cosby’s reputation as a moonshine town remains to this day.
The Infamous “Popcorn” Sutton
Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton was one of the most infamous and prolific moonshiners in the area. As a third-generation moonshiner, he created an autobiography that also served as a textbook for making moonshine. Me and My Likker became an essential piece of literature for moonshiners in the region.
Law enforcement arrested Sutton when he tried to sell nearly a thousand gallons of illegal moonshine to an undercover agent. He was arrested, tried, and convicted in 2008. Four days before his 18-month sentence began, he killed himself with carbon monoxide poisoning.
In 2009, lawmakers passed a bill in Tennessee, allowing distilleries to expend their operations into areas where moonshining had previously been illegal. Modern moonshiners seek to follow traditional recipes. They honor the rich history of moonshining with their distillery operations.
The Popcorn Sutton Distillery and the Cocke County Moonshine Distillery are the two most prominent moonshining operations in Cosby.
Popcorn Sutton Distillery
After Popcorn’s death in 2008, his friend Jamey Grosser opened this legal moonshine operation. Using Popcorn’s recipes, the 50,000 square foot distillery allows his legacy to live on in modern moonshining.
The distillery keeps its spirits in giant copper pots, just like Sutton did. They test their spirits regularly to ensure that the liquor is the same high quality as Sutton’s own moonshine.
The recently released a newly created liquor called “Popcorn Spirit Barrel Aged.” This spirit is inspired by the brown spirits Popcorn shared with his family and close friends. It has the rich flavor of moonshine with warm notes of cinnamon and caramel.
Cocke County Moonshine Distillery
Arvis Keys, the owner and distiller behind this distillery, stays true to the local moonshining tradition. He uses 500-gallon copper pots to create moonshine the same way locals created spirits during prohibition.
The warm and friendly staff of this distillery explain the moonshining process to guests. Visitors can enjoy free tastings from a large variety of flavored moonshine. The distillery’s retail store offers souvenirs like hats, shirts, and other products.