No matter how many cases of the bright green soda you’ve gulped, you would probably still be surprised to learn about its mountain heritage, early career as a bourbon mixer, and audacious marketing plans.
1. THE GREAT DEPRESSION MADE IT POSSIBLE.
If everything had gone according to plan, Ally and Barney Hartman would never have become linked to everyone’s favorite fluorescent soda. They originally wanted to be orange soda moguls. In 1926, the brothers were part of a group that began bottling Orange Crush in Augusta, Ga. While Orange Crush was a hugely successful soda in those days, the Great Depression hit the Augusta plant particularly hard, leading the business into bankruptcy in 1932. The Hartman brothers then moved to Knoxville, Tenn. to join an Orange Crush franchise there.
2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY A MIXER FOR BOURBON.
While market conditions were rosier in eastern Tennessee, the Hartman brothers had a serious problem with their new home. During their stay in Georgia, they had become fond of a lemon-lime soda called Natural Set-Up, which was the perfect companion for their other favorite beverage, Old Taylor bourbon.
Luckily for the Hartmans, they had a bottling plant at their disposal. According to Dick Bridgforth’s Mountain Dew: The History, the brothers began bottling small runs of a lemon-lime soda for their own use. At first they called it “Personal SetUp,” but it was later dubbed “Mountain Dew,” a joking reference to moonshine. Rather than a commercial drink, the Mountain Dew was a novelty that the Hartmans used to mix drinks for themselves and guests.
3. THE INITIAL LAUNCH OF MOUNTAIN DEW WAS A JOKE.
In Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World, Tristan Donovan recounts the first launch of Mountain Dew at a 1946 soda convention. As a joke, the Hartman brothers decided to have their friend John Brichetto draw a cartoon label featuring a rifle-toting hillbilly. They then “announced” the launch of the new soda that they had been brewing in stills back home in Tennessee. To their surprise, a bottler from Johnson City, Tenn. asked about the bottling rights for the private soda, and by 1951, the commercial Mountain Dew was ready for store shelves.
4. THE ORIGINAL MOUNTAIN DEW DIDN'T TASTE LIKE TODAY'S VERSION.
If mixing today’s green Mountain Dew into a glass of bourbon sounds gross, you’ll be happy to learn that the Hartmans’ original recipe was much closer to today’s 7UP or Sprite. This version of the soda never truly found a niche in the marketplace, and in 1957, the Marion, Va.-based Tip Corporation bought the Mountain Dew brand from the Hartmans. In 2001, Ally Hartman’s son revealed to the Associated Press that he had turned down the opportunity to buy the brand for $1500 when he was just 19 years old, so his father and uncle sold out to the Tip Corporation instead.
5. THE FLAVOR WE NOW KNOW IS MORE A "CITRUS LEMONADE."
By the early 1960s, Mountain Dew was still struggling to take off. Around the same time, the Johnson City bottling plant that had helped commercialize Mountain Dew was busy formulating an alternative to the popular “citrus fruit beverage” Sun Drop. Once manager Bill Bridgforth had settled on a flavor he liked, he hit on the marketing coup of packaging his “Tri-City Lemonade” in Mountain Dew bottles, a move that would forever change the flavor of Mountain Dew.
6. THE NEW FLAVOR PUT THE BRAND ON PEPSI'S RADAR.
This flavor tweak finally gave Mountain Dew a real shot at competing with larger brands. Thanks to its memorable hillbilly marketing gimmick and its tastier new formulation, Mountain Dew started to grab enough of the regional soft drink market that in 1964 Pepsico acquired the Tip Corporation and Mountain Dew brand with plans to roll the regional favorite out nationally. As Donovan notes in Fizz, hillbillies were having a pop culture moment in the mid-'60s with the success of The Beverly Hillbillies, so Pepsi could even afford to keep the backwoods branding as it expanded Mountain Dew’s territory.
7. PHILADELPHIA'S INTRODUCTION TO MOUNTAIN DEW WAS BRILLIANT.
As Bridgforth writes in Mountain Dew: The History, Philadelphia’s Pepsi bottler sprang Mountain Dew on the city with an incredibly involved hoax and publicity stunt. Just as Mountain Dew was entering the market, the Philadelphia License Commissioner received an odd request from “Herbert Eugene Walton,” who described himself as a hillbilly from Turkeyscratch, Tenn. Bridgforth writes that Herbert wanted “permission to build a series of wooden outhouses on all of the downtown parking lots.”
With the letter setting the stage, an actor playing “Herbert the Hillbilly” rolled into Philly in a red 1929 Model A loaded with jugs and distilling equipment. Herbert slowly drove down Philly’s main drags, causing traffic jams until he eventually reached City Hall. Once at City Hall, he revealed the “reason” for his visit: Overturning a 1911 ordinance that banned outhouses, which could have been useful for distilling delicious Mountain Dew. The actor went on to cause a local sensation by picketing the IRS to ask for a tax license to brew Mountain Dew and setting up a “still” that enabled him to offer pedestrians samples of the Mountain Dew.
8. PEPSI EVENTUALLY RETIRED THE HILLBILLIES.
Backwoods society may have been a winning pop culture formula in the 1960s, but it didn’t do much to move soda. Mountain Dew struggled to find a foothold in the national soda market, where drinkers were apparently skeptical of slogans like “It’ll tickle yore innards!” In 1969, Pepsi sent the entire marketing plan back to Turkeyscratch.
The move turned out to be brilliant. As Donovan notes in Fizz, although Pepsi all but gave up on marketing Mountain Dew, the drink gained steam on its own, with sales increasing by 300 percent leading into 1976. When the brand eventually settled on a marketing strategy in the 1980s and 1990s built on sports and an irreverent personality, it developed into a juggernaut.
9. IT COULD HAVE BEEN EVEN MORE CAFFEINATED.
Mountain Dew’s caffeine content is legendary, and with 55 mg of the compound in every 12-ounce can, it’s over 50 percent more caffeinated than Coca-Cola Classic. At one point during the early formulations of today’s popular version, it was amped up to an even greater degree. Tip Corporation executive Hugh Slagle reminisced to author Bridgforth that one prototype recipe “had so much caffeine in it that when bottled, the caffeine crystallized forming what looked like ‘slivers of ice or glass.’”
10. NOBODY HAS BEEN ABLE TO KNOCK IT OFF OF ITS PERCH.
Since Pepsi began marketing Mountain Dew at active young drinkers, Mountain Dew has soared to a lofty place in the soft drink space to claim the fourth position on the U.S. sales chart behind Coca Cola, Diet Coke, and Pepsi. Coke has made several attempts at dethroning Pepsi’s citrus workhorse, but to no avail. Mello Yello, introduced in 1979 with a $10 million ad campaign that dubbed it “the fastest soft drink in the world” has been reduced to a regional offering. In 1996 Coca-Cola introduced Surge with a Super Bowl ad and a $50 million push, but it washed out of the market by 2003. However, Coke’s not ready to wave the white flag just yet—after a limited 2014 revival on Amazon sold well, Coca-Cola has just reintroduced Surge to store shelves.
11. THE HILLBILLY MARKETING CAN STILL MAKE THE OCCASIONAL APPEARANCE.
Mountain Dew’s flagship soda may no longer be a rural delicacy, but the company made a nod at its mountain heritage earlier this year when it introduced Dewshine, a “throwback” craft soda made with real sugar and packaged in clear glass bottles. If high-end Mountain Dew sounds like a bit of an oxymoron, just know that Pepsi has never been shy about extending the product line—in 2012 it introduced Mountain Dew Kickstart, a variant that you could drink with breakfast.
Mountain Dew: The History by Dick Bridgforth
Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World by Tristan Donovan