The bourbon roots of Mountain Dew – now the country’s third-most popular soft drink – began because two Knoxville brothers needed a tasty mixer for their bourbon. That 1940s-styled Mountain Dew didn’t taste like today’s lemonade-citrus, caffeine- and sugar-charged drink. As clear as the moonshine whose moniker it borrowed, this Dew tasted like today’s 7Up or Sprite. Years later, when Mountain Dew began tasting like today’s Mountain Dew, it was first called lemonade and sold in a clear bottle.
Turning a Knoxville whiskey mixer into a soft drink to “tickle yore innards” took mixology magic, business savvy and a marketing campaign filled with gun-toting, jug-swigging barefoot Appalachian hillbillies. Today Mountain Dew is marketed as a high-energy, high-performing beverage favored by, among others, extreme-sports athletes and race car drivers. But whatever its image – from barefoot mountaineers to adventuresome snowboarders – Mountain Dew sells. Industry statistics show it’s the third-most popular “liquid refreshment brand” behind Coca-Cola and its PepsiCo parent’s Pepsi.
A new exhibit at the Museum of East Tennessee History, 601 S. Gay St., traces Mountain Dew’s regional roots and cultural connections. “It’ll Tickle Yore Innards!: A [Hillbilly] History of Mountain Dew” runs through Jan. 20. “I think there is certainly something addictive to it, right?” Adam Alfrey, the East Tennessee History Center’s operations manager and senior curator, said about the drink’s popularity. “But I also think they [Mountain Dew owners] have been very smart to shift their marketing at the right times.” Mountain Dew started because Knoxville brothers Barney and Ally (pronounced Ollie) Hartman needed the right mixer for their whiskey The Hartmans managed an Orange-Crush bottling plant in Augusta, Ga., shortly after World War I. The sons of German immigrants, they enjoyed an after-work drink of Old Taylor Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey mixed with the highly carbonated lemon-lime soft drink Natural Setup. Natural Setup advertised itself as “delicious, sparkling, healthful” though its label included a pair of dice.
When the Orange-Crush plant went bankrupt in 1932, the Hartmans moved to Knoxville to help operate a plant at 1921 Magnolia Ave. Smart businessmen who’d seen one plant fail, they diversified. They sold beer the minute Prohibition ended in 1933 and began selling Pepsi in 1934. As beer and Pepsi sold well, they dropped Orange-Crush and became the Hartman Beverage Co. But one of their favorites – Natural Setup – wasn’t sold in Knoxville. In the 1940s, the Hartmans set out to make their own version, mostly to mix with liquor.
They asked Tip Corp.’s master flavor mixer William Henry “Billy” Jones of Marion, Va., to formulate the right concentrate for the nonalcoholic, carbonated beverage. The brothers occasionally bottled a few dozen cases of “Personal Setup” for themselves, employees and friends. They weren’t the first in Knoxville to make a carbonated dew. Twenty years before, Hungarian immigrant Max Licht briefly bottled “Dew” drinks in 8-ounce bottles shaped like barrels. Selling for a nickel, Licht’s flavors included Grape Dew, Strawberry Dew and a “sparkling white pure lemon” Mountain Dew. The Hartmans’ Personal Setup was clear with a lemon-lime flavor like 7Up or today’s Sprite. One employee joked it was as good as “mountain dew” because, when mixed with liquor, it tasted like a fine moonshine.
As time went by, it would be that joke of a name, not the drink’s flavor, that would last. Their “mountain dew” was such a hit among friends and family, the Hartmans decided to go public. They debuted Mountain Dew, in deep green bottles, at a 1946 Gatlinburg bottling convention The bottles’ paper labels depicted a barefoot, overalls-clad hillbilly holding a rifle in one hand and a jug of moonshine in the other. Drawn by Hartman neighbor and high schooler John Brichetto, the label implied the brothers “hand-brewed” the dew in a clandestine still.
Mountain Dew’s strategy rode the time’s popular wave of Appalachian hillbilly marketing, Alfrey said. With tag-lines such as “Yahoo!” and “It’ll tickle yore innards,” the soft drink Mountain Dew built on the hillbilly image of the mid-20th century. Its hillbilly character “Grandpappy” was shown on later bottles shooting at a government revenuer running from an outhouse. The Hartmans loved their lemon-lime Mountain Dew. The public didn’t. “It never really got off the ground,” Alfrey said. It’d take the Tri-City Beverage company – and a new taste – to make Mountain Dew a hit. The Johnson City firm loved the drink’s green bottle and hillbilly imagery and got a franchise to make it. But their customers weren’t any keener on that lemon-lime flavor than those in Knoxville. Tri-City had Billy Jones – the man who created the Hartmans’ “Mountain Dew” – make a lemonade-citrus soft drink in 1958. Loaded with caffeine and sugar, the drink was called Tri-City Lemonade.
In 1960, Tri-City manager Bill Bridgforth decided to bottle what was Tri-City in Mountain Dew’s green hillbilly-labeled bottles. He renamed the drink the “new” Mountain Dew Gone was the Hartmans’ original lemon-lime drink. Gone was Tri-City Lemonade. In 1960, Tri-City manager Bill Bridgforth decided to bottle what was Tri-City in Mountain Dew’s green hillbilly-labeled bottles. He renamed the drink the “new” Mountain Dew. Gone was the Hartmans’ original lemon-lime drink. Gone was Tri-City Lemonade. Sales soared. “Kids loved it,” Alfrey said. Mountain Dew began to compete with the similarly flavored Sundrop and inspired the 1979 creation of Mello Yello. In 1964, Pepsi bought Mountain Dew and the Tip Corp. Pepsi officials loved what one executive called the beverage’s “frankly hillbilly appeal.” For a few years, the company built on that image.
A larger “hillbilly” cabin was built in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria ballroom during Pepsi-Cola’s 1964 bottling convention. There “Daisy Mae” offered samples of Mountain Dew’s “mountain elixir.”
As the 1970s begin, Pepsi dropped hillbillies but kept their bare feet. It switched Mountain Dew marketing to a “Get That Barefoot Feeling” campaign aimed at urban teens. Over the decades, Mountain Dew has changed its logo and its market strategy into today’s swirl logo.
The museum exhibit melts the history of corn whiskey “mountain dew” with the carbonated “Mountain Dew.” Artifacts include whiskey jugs from Knoxville saloons to an array of Mountain Dew bottles designed over the years to a promotional Granpappy doll. A loop of commercials illustrates how Mountain Dew’s been sold through the decades. Among the spots – how to promote the drink with Pepsi’s Doritos chips.