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Mountain Dew Was Originally a Whiskey Mixer

Posted by Colonel Bourbon on

Mountain Dew was originally a whiskey mixer. Today's neon drink, energizing video gamers and many fun demos, has historic moonshine and bourbon roots.

Strange but true!

The moonshine/whiskey origins of Mountain Dew

The drink was born in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee; "mountain dew" was a slang name for moonshine. The brothers Barney and Allen Hartman developed the recipe n the 1940s, a lemon-lime mix they created becausr such a thing was not available in their new Knoxville home.

AP tells the story:

"The Hartmans managed an Orange-Crush bottling plant in Augusta, Georgia, 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."

Their go-to, Natural Setup, wasn't available in Knoxville, due to the regionalized manufacturing at the time, so they came up with the Mountain Dew.

Mountain Dew Was Originally a Whiskey Mixer

(Ready for our taste test, with Mountain Dew, originally founded as a whiskey mixer in the 1940s, and Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond 100 Proof, always a good, solid choice for mixing. Photo: Colonel Bourbon staff.)

In the beginning, the Dew didn't have the caffeine or the yellow dye. It was more like a clear soda, like Spirit or 7-Up

While the brothers at first made it for themselves, they ended up marketing it as "zero-proof hillbilly moonshine that will tickle your innards." The business struggled however after Barney suffered a heart attack and died.

The company was sold to the Tip Corpiration in Virginia and the recipe was changed, although there's differing accounts of what happened. One story is that a Tri-City lemonade recipe started to go into the Mountain Dew bottles.

Moonshine logo and packaging

The early logos featured a barefooted "Grandpappy" hillbilly with a jug of moonshine. Later, in an ode to the days of Prohibition, the packaging had the hillbilly with his rifle, shooting  at a federal revenue agent. Interestingly when Pepsi purchased the company in 1964, it kept the Appalachian marketing in order to continue to reach that market. This eventually changed as the new "Mt Dew" was marketed to the younger generation, with lines like "Do the dew!" -- which is still used today.

Eventually it became the drink of video gamers and other influencers (athletes, race car drivers...), -- this was a  long road from the Appalachia origins. Imagine those wildly-different folks meeting each other :)

Taste testing time

Mt. Dew contains high-fructose corn syrup, and since bourbon whiskey's mash bill is at least 51% corn, it was going to be interesting to see what may happen when we combined the two. 

Except for an occasional Old Fashioned or Whiskey Sour,  we rarely drink mixed cocktails here at CB, preferring neat or light rocks. We didn't have any soda on hand and can't remember the last time any of us  had Mt. Dew, so we went to the store to acquire.

The Consensus 

We mixed 1 part Evan Williams Bottle-in-bond 100 Proof and 2 parts Dew. Our initial thoughts: not bad. 


  • Perhaps there's something to sodas having that corn syrup, mixed with bourbon, which is 51+% corn. The corn-based ingredients seem to complement each other. Maybe it's the reason Jack and Coke work so well. As Jack Daniels says on their site:

"Jack Daniel chose a well-considered recipe of 80% corn, 12% barley and 8% rye that we still use today.  Using only No. 1 quality grade corn gives the mash an inviting sweetness. An ample amount of rye rounds out the sweetness with robust notes of pepper and spice. And just enough malt brings it all together with a creamy smoothness.:

  • And the Mt. Dew gives the cocktail an effervescent fizz, citrusy. The copper-colored whiskey toned down the neon, of course. But it was immediately, certainly refreshing. It was a rare moment for us to chill the Evan Williams before mixing.
  • Having said that, for our tasters it was a short-term drink. We're not sweet-tooth folks and after barely one drink we were ready to go back to the wonderfully, delightfully bitter bite of neat or light-ice bourbon we know and love.
  • It might have been worth trying Mt. Dew with Jack. We found someone who did:

"...Mountain Dew and whiskey still works surprisingly well — as long as you use a whiskey with the right characteristics for your palate.

"You may find that Irish whiskeys and bourbon whiskeys work well for your palate, while Scotch whiskey does not."

The conclusion as a current mixer

One of our tasters writes: "Of course Mountain Dew is a good mixer for whiskey, since it, or a version of it, was specifically made for mixing with the brown liquor. 

From what I can tell, they primarily market the neon nectar as an energy boost to gamers, etc. The sugar high angle. As far as I know Coca-Cola doesn't have or use that angle, for better or for worse. Going back to, or at least acknowledging, your origins, is not a bad thing, especially these days.

"They should try a high-end throwback version, and see if it gains any traction. So cool if it featured the hillbilly art, with the rifle or maybe with a fiddle."

"I'm guessing however the corporate folk would be hesitate to risk the corporate image."

"Throwback" version

In the 2010s, Pepsi in fact tried a "throwback" version of Mt. Dew, using cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. As you may know, Coca-Cola has done this, successfully, with what is called "Mexican Coke." 

As far as we can tell, the "throwback" was discontinued a few years ago. It is not on Pepsi's list of Mt. Dew products and a 12-pack we found on Amazon went for $75.00.

With today's more health-conscious culture, and the preference for quality, artisan, local products, the Hartmans' Knoxville, Tennessee recipe might be worth more consideration, especially considering the bourbon renaissance.

Mountain Dew ad 1950s. 'It will tickle for innards."

(Pictured: 1950s ad for Mountain Dew, "It'll tickle your innards."  It was originally a lemon-lime flavored whiskey mixer, founded in Tennessee in the 1940s. Pepsi purchased the brand in 1964. Photo credit: Wikipedia Creative Commons, Belkczar.)

"It's Corn!"

In the 1970s, Pepsi began associating Mt. Dew with its Doritos brand, tieing the two in the marketing -- so it was even more about corn! :)

BTW, as we write this,  there is a video going viral about a young man who is smitten with America's corn:


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  • The bourbon world is ALL ABOUT the history and the legends. So much so the brands have been known to, shall we say, exaggerate and embellish the myths. Here is history tailored-made (or is it “Old Taylor” made lol) for a brand. Personally citrus wouldn’t wet my whistle, but its worth some careful thought by marketers and a good bartender.

    Sam on

  • What a fun story and history. We often forget that there is often a legacy that can be forgotten if we are not good stewards (bourbon pun intended!)

    Michael Jonathan on

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