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The Bootlegging, Moonshine Origins of Mountain Dew

Long before it was the stuff of gamers and X-Game athletes, Mountain Dew was an illicit corn whiskey fashioned from homemade stills deep in the backwoods of Appalachia

The fact that Mountain Dew bears the name of what was often an illegal alcoholic beverage brewed in the southeastern mountain ranges of the U.S. is certainly no accident. Barney and Ally Hartman, the creators of the original Mountain Dew formula, reportedly appropriated the name for their soft drink syrup because they had difficulty finding a soda to mix with liquor to their liking, and opted to create one of their own. By the time their product hit the market in the late 1940s, many alcoholic beverages bearing the Mountain Dew name — produced both legally and illegally — had been sold for many decades, providing ample opportunities for all kinds of confusion.

Throughout the 1800s, allusions to mountain dew the spirit were spread in newspapers throughout the country. For example, in 1891 the New York Herald published a story about the “exciting but hazardous pastime” of hunting moonshiners in Tennessee. The writer interviewed revenue agent W.J. Willmore, who explained the imminent danger posed by mountain dew to those who drank it. “All acquainted with the product of the moonshiner know that mountain dew is a villainous drink,” expressed Willmore. “It is pure white, raw and fiery. It is never ripened by age, and the distillers pay no attention to the principles of scientific fermentation. They run off the spirits when hot, and so depraved are their tastes that they drink it fresh from the still.”

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th century, the most consistent application of mountain dew promulgated by newswriters was in reference to the corn whiskey produced in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. When even a writer from The Daily Argus Leader wrote disparagingly about “the po’ white trash of the Appalachian Range” in 1912, he had to drop in a reference to the region’s most notorious beverage. “The main industry of many mountaineers is supposed to be illicit distilling,” he submitted. “The words ‘corn juice,’ ‘mountain dew’ and ‘corn whiskey’ are familiar to all who have read about the South or visited it.”

It should be noted that corn whiskey is often differentiated from moonshine, inasmuch as moonshine has traditionally had sugar added to its source material. There were also multiple examples of shelf-ready corn whiskey being sold under the “Mountain Dew” brand name in multiple parts of the U.S., including “Rose’s Mountain Dew” in the Appalachian region, and the Mountain Dew Corn Whiskey of the F. DeHart Distilling Company in Virginia.

Advertisement for F. DeHart’s Mountain Dew Corn Whiskey

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, a war between competing Scotch brands had been raging on whisky store shelves since at least the 1880s. The original utterance of the term “mountain dew” as a reference to whisky had occurred in the Celtic regions of the British Isles before the label ever made its way stateside, with the original mountains in question referring to either those of Ireland or the Scottish Highlands. This being the case, the celebrated Mountain Dew of Roberton, Sanderson & Co. and the “Real Mountain Dew” of John Gillon & Co. competed for sales and in the courtroom over who had the rights to use the Mountain Dew name. Both blends of Scotch would eventually be imported and sold primarily in the northeast and western regions of the U.S.

Sanderson’s Mountain Dew Scotch (above) and Real Mountain Dew Scotch (below)

Mountain Dew Goes Soft (Drink)

Clearly, as the Hartmans’ alcohol-free soft-drink syrup began its initial spread into various regions of the U.S. during the early 1950s, all of the essential ingredients for confusion as to its contents had already been sewn. In late July 1951, the Tampa Times reported on a raid at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Gene Durrance in Lakeland, Florida. After first questioning the couple’s five-year-old daughter to confirm that the pair was indeed in the business of selling “Mountain Dew,” three plainclothes police officers reportedly converged on their backyard only to discover that the husband-and-wife team were the producers and distributors of Mountain Dew syrup, which was added to carbonated water and bottled to produce a non-alcoholic soft drink.

“Durrance didn’t give a description of the trio [of cops], but said that they can probably be recognized by their crimson faces and abashed expressions,” joked the paper.

Bert Vincent, a columnist for the Knoxville News-Sentinel amusedly acknowledged the existence of the carbonated Mountain Dew soft drink in 1952, and addressed how Tennesseeans would now have to brainstorm a new name for the beverage’s source material in order to avoid confusion between the two. “Now a soft drink has grabbed the name and had it registered,” he wrote. “I heard it being ballyhooed over the radio the other day, the first I knew about it. However, I understand it has been commercialized for more than a year. Oh well, let ‘em have it. There are more fitting names for most of the stuff that’s being made now. Splo is one, being short for explosive. Another fairly new name is silver cloud, a name after the silver-colored iron metal they use in making most stills now.”

Mountain Dew Goes Corporate (Kinda)

In 1964, when Pepsi acquired the exclusive rights to manufacture and distribute Mountain Dew, the beverage giant directly referenced the links between the name of Mountain Dew and its backwoods origins, settling on what the Arizona Republic referred to as “a purposefully unsophisticated advertising slogan.” Replete with an intentionally misspelled word, “It tickles yore innards” was Mountain Dew’s tagline at the time.

The brand’s TV commercials leaned into the mountaineering references even more heavily, with slack-jawed, gun-toting bumpkins sipping Mountain Dew directly from classic stoneware moonshine jugs. Had Mountain Dew not been overtly referred to as a “sof’ drink” at the very end of the commercial, many viewers might have believed that commercialized moonshine was actually what was being advertised.

The intentional allusion to hooch definitely helped to make it an instant smash with America’s youth. When reporting on the success of Mountain Dew, the Wall Street Journal immediately credited the soda’s booming popularity to its naughty name, running an April 1965 article under the headline, “Hillbilly Names Help ‘Moonshine’ Soda Pop Grab Teenage Sales.” It also referenced Kickapoo Joy Juice, a beverage that was both similarly colored and flavored, which was likewise inspired by an alcoholic beverage of the same name introduced in the Li’l Abner comic strip. Somehow, citrus had become the unofficial flavor of soft drinks that masquerade as inauthentic alcohol.

Mountain Dew was so popular at the time that when Pepsi opened its new bottling plant in Rochester, New York in October 1965, company president James Somerall proudly proclaimed how the plant would finally enable Upstate New Yorkers to receive the brand’s “fastest-growing drink.” He conceded that the name “probably has something to do with its popularity” before saying that sales were booming regardless. 

Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune reported that General Bottlers was distributing “hillbilly hats and corncob pipes” to help market Mountain Dew as it arrived in the Windy City.

Mountain Dew Goes Legit

Despite its initial surge in popularity, sales of Mountain Dew slowed as it extended its reach toward a larger national audience, and its hillbilly-based marketing was blamed. As such, in 1974, David Felts of the Herald and Review reported how Mountain Dew would be cleaning up its act before resuming its national push. “A Pepsi sales executive says there will be a new theme in advertising, a switch from ‘outhouses, pigs and other hillbilly moonshine atmosphere,’ and an appeal to a more sophisticated market with ‘Hello Sunshine, Hello Mountain Dew,’” he wrote. 

The move toward sophistication was an unqualified success, as Pepsi reps outright admitted that Mountain Dew needed to shed its “hillbilly image” in order for the brand to achieve its full potential. “I guess we got Mountain Dew from the ‘outhouse’ and into the households,” said Victor Bonomo, PepsiCo’s executive vice president of operations in 1980.

It hasn’t looked back since. Today, in fact, Mountain Dew frequently ranks among the five most profitable soft drink brands in the U.S., officially shedding an image and past that was often as crude as the distillation process that once defined it. The surprise now is that it was ever a sour corn whiskey and not always a sweet corn syrup.