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Sippin' Secrets: The Covert Ties Between Mountain Dew and Moonshine Culture

Mountain Dew wasn’t my soda of choice growing up. My brother and guy friends were drinking it like water after the great re-branding of the early 90s when they stopped with the cartoon hillbillies, became EXTREME for Gen X, and debuted its Code Red flavor. I did start “Doing the Dew” when I was well into adulthood, after not drinking a single cola in 20 years. I’m cutting back on sodas today, even the citrusy ones, for health reasons but I'll admit Diet Mountain Dew is probably my favorite carbonated beverage.

A photo of two green bottles with Mountain Dew logos and an aluminum can with a Mountain Dew logo. The logos are all vintage and hillbilly-themed. The glass of the bottles are green

The Beginnings

Originally, Mountain Dew had a transparent appearance coupled with a refreshing lemon-lime flavor akin to beverages like 7Up or Sprite. The original formula, quite distinct from the modern rendition, emerged in the early 1940s through the inventive minds of two soda pop enthusiasts. The journey of Mountain Dew, as we recognize it today, traces back to the relocation of two Georgia natives, Barney and Ally Hartman, to Knoxville, where their desire for a distinctive beverage took root.

Formerly engaged in the soda pop business in Augusta, Georgia, the Hartman brothers faced challenges when Orange Crush, the soda pop company they worked for, went bankrupt during the early years of the Depression. The brothers, now in Knoxville, ventured into the beer industry in 1933 right after the end of Prohibition. By 1934, they expanded their offerings by introducing Pepsi-Cola and discontinuing Orange Crush.

Following long days of bottling soda, the brothers sought relaxation with bourbon whiskey mixed with a carbonated lemon-lime drink called Natural Setup. As Natural Setup was scarce in that region, they took matters into their own hands and recreated it using their bottling plant. Assisted by a skilled flavor mixer, they not only crafted it for personal enjoyment but also shared it with friends.

A vintage photograph of three mountain men in Tennessee wearing overall and with moonshine equipment in front of them.

How is Mountain Dew connected to moonshine?

Fast forward to the early 1940s, and the brothers found themselves with a lemon-lime soda mixer that perfectly complemented whiskey, making it an ideal pairing for high-quality moonshine, known colloquially as Mountain Dew. The concoction became a sensation among their friends and family, prompting them to consider commercializing it.

The drink officially debuted at a bottling convention in Gatlinburg in 1964. Concurrently, the early 1960s saw a significant interest in Appalachian themes, particularly the culture of mountain folk and the allure of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Seizing this trend, brothers Barney and Ally embraced a hillbilly marketing strategy, featuring barefoot, overall-clad mountaineers holding a jug of Dew in one hand and a rifle in the other. The catchy tagline "It'll tickle yore innards!" quickly gained popularity.

A vintage Mountain Dew advertisement from Pepsi-Cola with a hillbilly theme. A cartoon man is holding a moonshine jug and the cork is shooting through his had. A bottle of Mountain Dew is pictured with the cap shooting above it.

The hillbilly-themed branding of Mountain Dew

On larger bottles, the hillbilly character was depicted dashing out of an outhouse, taking shots at revenuers. Despite the clever marketing, the beverage failed to gain widespread popularity. That changed when a Johnson City bottler stepped in. Tri-City Beverage admired the thematic elements and the distinctive green bottles, prompting them to acquire a franchise to produce Mountain Dew. However, the initial product struggled to sell. Collaborating with the same mix master who had assisted the Hartman brothers in creating the original Dew, Tri-City Beverage introduced Tri-City Lemonade. This variant, rich in caffeine and sugar, proved far more successful than the original Dew. Recognizing its potential, the corporation purchased the formula, filled Mountain Dew bottles with the lemonade, and suddenly found themselves with a hit that attracted the attention of major players. This led to Pepsi-Cola purchasing the Mountain Dew brand in 1964.

Initially, Pepsico embraced the hillbilly theme. Pepsi-Cola Company was working to establish Mountain Dew as a global brand by employing mountain stereotypes in its marketing. In 1964, at the Pepsi bottling convention, the company constructed a hillbilly cabin in the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom in New York, featuring "Daisy Mae" offering samples of the mountain elixir. However, as the 1970s approached, Pepsi began to shift away from hillbilly-themed marketing, signaling a transformative chapter in the history of Mountain Dew. Retaining some elements, such as bare feet, the company started targeting the urban free spirit of the post-hippie generation. The precursor to the extreme marketing campaigns of the 90s emerged with the slogan: "Get that barefoot feeling," laying the groundwork for the eventual theme of the 90s – "Get wild, get free. Drink our extremely caffeinated soda!"

A picture of an open Mountain Dew bottle with the liquid spewing out and a man surfing the liquid while barefoot. Words say Do the Dew.

Mountain Dew today

Mountain Dew's branding stayed robust, leading the decision-makers to opt for introducing new "editions" under the same brand umbrella rather than launching them as entirely new brands. The introduction of Code Red proved highly successful, paving the way for additional variations. This included noteworthy collaborations, such as the one with Taco Bell that birthed the iconic Baja Blast, alongside less conventional flavors like Frost Bite, Voltage, Sweet Lightning, and White Out.

Overall, it has come a long way in 80 years, a long way from a pair of Georgia native brothers who just wanted to have their favorite mixer with their favorite whiskey. Are you a fan of Mountain Dew? What is your favorite flavor?


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