The Surprising Connection Between Mountain Dew and Moonshine

vintage mountain dew bottles

Mountain Dew once leaned into a hillbilly theme (photo by Nicole Glass Photography/shutterstock.com)

Tennessee local talks history of Mountain Dew, its old hillbilly theming

Mountain Dew wasn’t always my soda of choice growing up. I don’t think I bothered much with Mountain Dew until 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” about that time, and though I’m cutting back on sodas these days for health reasons, Diet Mountain Dew is probably my favorite carbonated beverage.

How Mountain Dew got its start

Originally, Mountain Dew was clear with a crisp lemon-lime flavor like 7Up or Sprite. The original formula was far different than we know today. The first version of Mountain Dew appeared from the minds of a pair of soda pop geniuses back in the early 40s.

Pepsi, Orange Crush, Mtn. Dew boxes
In the early 1930s, the Hartman Brothers were selling Orange Crush and Pepsi before the Mountain Dew fame (photo by The Image Party/shutterstock.com)

Mountain Dew as we know it now got its start because a couple of Georgia natives moved to Knoxville and wanted to get their drink on. Barney and Ally Hartman were in the soda pop business back home in Augusta, Georgia. In the early 1930s, they were selling Orange Crush. However, the soda pop company filed for bankruptcy in the early years of the Depression. The brothers were then asked to move to Knoxville in an attempt to resurrect the brand.

The minute prohibition ended, they got into the beer game. That was 1933. In 1934, they added Pepsi Cola to their repertoire and dropped Orange Crush altogether. The brothers – after a hard day of bottling soda – liked to relax with some bourbon whiskey mixed with a carbonated lemon-lime drink called Natural Setup. Natural Setup, however, was hard to find in that part of Tennessee. Therefore, they did what any industrious drinkers with access to their own bottling plant would do. They recreated it. With the help of a master flavor mixer, they bottled it for their personal use and some of their friends.

A Clear Beverage with a Crock Container
Moonshiners used the term “mountain dew” during prohibition. A pair of brothers created what we know as Mountain Dew as a mixer for whiskey. A mason jar is pictured above (photo by Kim Grayson/TheSmokies.com)

What does Mountain Dew have to do with moonshine?

Fast forward to the early 1940s. The brothers had their lemon-lime soda mixer which was combined with whiskey. It was also the perfect match for high-quality moonshine, aka Mountain Dew. It was such a hit with their friends and family that they decided to sell it. The drink made its debut at a 1964 Gatlinburg bottling convention. Meanwhile, Appalachian themes were huge at the time. There was a fascination with mountain folk and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As a result, brothers Barney and Ally used hillbilly marketing with barefoot, overall-clad mountaineers with a jug of Dew in one hand and a rifle in the other. “It’ll tickle yore innards!” became a popular tagline.

Diet Mountain Dew in Bottle
Pepsi eventually dropped the hillbilly theme on the Mountain Dew bottles (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Mountain Dew’s hillbilly theming

On larger bottles, the hillbilly character was shown running out of an outhouse and firing at revenuers. Despite the brilliant marketing, the drink never really caught on. That is, until a Johnson City bottler got involved. Tri-City Beverage loved the theming and the green bottles. They purchased a franchise to make the Dew. However, it also didn’t sell. Tri-City worked with the same mix master who helped the Hartman brothers create their Dew. The result was Tri-City Lemonade, which was high in caffeine and sugar and much more popular than the original Dew. The corporation bought the formula, put the lemonade into the Mountain Dew bottles, and suddenly, they had a hit that began to get the attention of the big boys. Pepsi-Cola bought the Mountain Dew brand in 1964.

At first, Pepsico leaned into the hillbilly theme. The Pepsi-Cola Company set about making Mountain Dew a global brand using the same mountain stereotypes to market the brew. For the Pepsi bottling convention in 1964, the company built a hillbilly cabin in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria ballroom and had “Daisy Mae” offering samples of the mountain elixir. By the 70s, Pepsi started to move away from hillbilly-themed marketing. From there, the history of Mountain Dew begins to change. For example, the company kept the bare feet and began targeting the urban free spirit of the post-hippie generation. “Get that barefoot feeling” was the precursor to the extreme marketing campaigns of the 90s. The slogan was: “Get wild, get free. Drink our extremely caffeinated soda!”

Mountain Dew Various Flavors
Mountain Dew Code Red, a cherry-flavored variety of the original Dew, debuted in 2001 and became an instant hit. It was this success that eventually paved the way for more unique varieties including the popular Taco Bell Mountain Dew: Baja Blast (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Mountain Dew as we know it today

Mountain Dew’s branding remained strong, so rather than market new flavors as a new brand, the powers that be decided to make new “versions” of the same brand. Code Red was a hit. Then, other options followed, including the partnership with Taco Bell that brought us the immortal Mountain Dew: Baja Blast as well as less classic flavors like Frost Bite, Voltage, Sweet Lightning and White Out.

a cup of baja blast at taco bell
According to Taco Bell, Mountain Dew: Baja Blast tastes like a “real hurricane” with a “tropical lime” flavor (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

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 at the end of a long day and used their connections and their beverage company to make it happen. What are your thoughts about Mountain Dew? What is your favorite flavor? Let me know in the comments!

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2 thoughts on “The Surprising Connection Between Mountain Dew and Moonshine”

  1. Have had family and friends working for PepsiCo since the 60s and have always loved Mtn Dew since I was a child. Diet Mtn Dew is the only thing I drink nowadays, and I love the story of Mtn Dew starting right here in the Tennessee hills. It makes it so much better since it’s “homemade”.

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  2. Started drinking Mt Dew when I was a kid. Almost every Saturday my dad would take me to a little tavern and we would get a loose meat hamburger and a bottle of Mt Dew. I fondly remember those days. Now almost 60 years later. I still enjoy a Diet Mt Dew every morning

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