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Mountain Dew’s Moonshine Past

1800s | July 5, 2019

Mountain Dew...not just for country folks. Source: (picclick.com)

That highly-caffeinated, artificially-yellow, sugary-sweet beverage that you chug when you’re thirsty or need an energy boost was never intended to be a soft drink. In fact, it has ties to hard alcohol. Named after moonshine and developed as a mixer, the soft drink has had an interesting past from its creation in 1932 to becoming one of Pepsi’s top-selling products. Here is the history of Mountain Dew.

Mountain Dew was slang for moonshine. Source: (allthatsinteresting.com)

A Nickname for Moonshine

We see references to the nickname “mountain dew” used to indicate alcohol as far back as the 1880s. An Irish folk ditty from 1882 includes lyrics that say, “Of the rare poteen from Ireland green, distilled from wheat and rye.” It goes on to say, “So take off your coat and grease your throat, with a bucket of mountain dew.” During Prohibition, Appalachian moonshiners used the term “mountain dew” so that law enforcement wouldn’t know they were referring to illegal alcohol.

The soft drink was developed by the Hartman Brothers. Source: (blog.mahaska.com)

A Bar Mixer

In 1932, two brothers from Knoxville, Tennessee, Barney, and Ally Hartman started working on their own formula for a mixer. Bartenders in the area had complained that it was difficult to consistently get good, tasty mixers for their cocktails. The Hartman Brothers, owners of Hartman Bottlers, realized that if they could develop a good mixer, they would have consistent sales. Taking a page from the other soft drinks that had been developed in the previous decades, the brothers created a beverage with cane sugar, citrus flavoring, and carbonation. They dubbed their concoction Mountain Dew. 

The beverage was originally a mixer. Source: (sipsmith.com)

Dew Was a Dud

Sales of Mountain Dew did not take off as the Hartman brothers hoped. In hopes of gaining more widespread fans of the beverage, the Hartmans approached the Coca-Cola company in 1940. They were hoping to form a partnership with the leading soft drink manufacturer, but Coca-Cola declined their offer. The brothers were left with a product that was floundering. 

The formula was sold to a company in Marion, Virginia. Source: (frederickshome.net)

Rebranding the Dew

After Coca-Cola nixed their proposal, the Hartman Brothers sold the rights to their Mountain Dew formula to a company in Marion, Virginia, named Tip Corporation. The company owner, Bill Jones, felt that the beverage had potential but that the formula needed to be tweaked to make it more palatable. He developed several different variations of the soft drink formula and conducted taste tests all around Marion. He set up his table outside high schools, factories, and stores, and asked passers-by to sample the beverage. Using the feedback from townsfolks, Jones settled on a formula for Mountain Dew that was vastly different than the product the Hartman Brothers sold him. 

Mountain Dew made Bill Jones a wealthy man. Source: (appalachianhistory.net)

The New Mountain Dew Made Jones a Millionaire…Almost

The newly revamped Mountain Dew was launched in 1961. It was an immediate hit in Marion, Virginia, and grew to have a regional following. A few years later, in 1964, Jones took his soft drink formula to the headquarters of Pepsi Cola in New York City. Unlike Coca-Cola, Pepsi realized the potential of the soft drink and bought the formula from Jones. When Jones returned to Marion, Virginia, according to legend, his friends welcomed him back. Jones opened his wallet to them and exclaimed, “Fellas, I’m $20 short of being a millionaire.” His buddies ponied up the difference and handed Jones the $20 he needed to reach millionaire status. 

Willy the Hillbilly. Source: (youtube.com)

Pepsi Marketed Mountain Dew as a Drink For Country Folks

Pepsi’s original market plan called for using an old-fashioned label on the bottle, along with the mascot, Willy the Hillbilly. The tag line for the soda even called to mind the hillbilly lifestyle with “It’ll tickle yore innards.” As the drink took on more widespread popularity, the marketing plan changed to appeal to more people, especially in urban areas. 

Tags: moonshine | pop | soda

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.