How Mountain Dew went from being Appalachia’s choice whiskey mixer to the glowing green peak of sugary, caffeinated beverages we know today.

By Tiffany Stevens
October 29, 2019
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In modernity, Mountain Dew has cultivated a reputation as a high-sugar, energy-delivering soda, more akin to a sports drink than a simple carbonated beverage. It’s even created a specialized energy drink that reinforces Mountain Dew as the drink of choice for video gamers. But Mountain Dew wasn’t always thought of as a cheap, sugary soda used to quench the thirst of Fortnite fans. Nearly 80 years ago, the drink was most closely associated with Appalachian moonshiners. 

A recent Mountain Dew-themed exhibit at the Museum of East Tennessee History explained how two Knoxville, Tennessee brothers came up with the idea for the popular soft drink in 1940 after they moved from Augusta, Georgia, where they used to manage a bottling plant for Orange-Crush. Back in Georgia, Barney and Ally Hartman liked to end their days by mixing bourbon into a Sprite-like soda available at the time called Natural Setup. Knoxville didn’t carry Natural Setup, however, so the brothers had to come up with their own mixer. Their new product — Personal Setup — was largely bottled for family, friends, and people who worked for their businesses. Because it tasted similar to moonshine when mixed with whiskey, however, it soon gained a nickname referencing a then-common moniker for home-distilled liquor: Mountain Dew. 

WATCH: How to Make Mountain Dew Cupcakes

For decades, Mountain Dew popularized itself using the image of a barefoot, gun-toting, moonshine-swigging Appalachian man named Grandpappy. The company’s catchphrases, too, relied on the stereotypes surrounding country life in Tennessee; the most popular slogan, for a time, was “It’ll tickle yore innards.” But in the 1970s, the company tried to rebrand its image, repurposing its barefoot reputation to appeal more to young people living in cities. Once Pepsi started making Doritos, the company also created marketing techniques to promote the two brands together. Mountain Dew has continued to be associated with the corn-based chip ever since. 

Mountain Dew may not resemble its original formula. The citrus taste in Personal Setup was much lighter, and the green color wasn’t added until much later. However, you can still recapture some of the magic that Barney and Ally Hartman experienced. Mountain Dew cocktails are still popular among some whiskey lovers, who compare the mix to a whiskey sour. To make one at home, fill a whiskey glass (or mason jar) with ice. Muddle some mint and lemon together in the glass along with some simple syrup (if you like your drinks on the sweeter side); then add in your Mountain Dew and a whiskey of your choice. Southern Comfort seems to be the most preferred brand, but any whiskey would work well. A combination of two parts Mountain Dew to one part whiskey seems to be the most common mix. For non-whiskey lovers, spiced rum is a popular choice as well, and can be mixed in the same proportion. Regardless of whether you’re enjoying a nice evening on a Southern porch, or pouring a drink to accompany another round of competitive gaming, a Mountain Dew cocktail is sure to hit the spot.

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