Road trip news, rants, and ruminations by the Editors of RoadsideAmerica.com
December 1, 2019
Little remains of the original soft drink Mountain Dew except for its name, its garish red and green label colors, and the fact that it has enough sugar and caffeine to choke a mule.
It was concocted in 1946, in Knoxville, Tennessee, by two brothers who didn’t want to sell it or drink it straight. They used it as their own personal mixer for their whiskey. When it first hit the market in 1951 it was sold in little 7 ounce bottles, not enough to quench a 12 ounce thirst, but enough to mix with a shot or two of bourbon.
Mountain Dew in those days did not sell well, and tasted something like 7-Up. The flavor that Dew drinkers know today was invented in 1960 and first put into Mountain Dew bottles in either Marion, Virginia, or Lumberton, North Carolina (Both towns claim credit). The South loved the new taste so much that Mountain Dew was bought by Pepsi, which took the drink nationwide with a five-year-long hillbilly marketing blitz. Today the neon green beverage is the third most popular soda brand in the world.
Modern “Game Fuel” Dew drinkers have little awareness of the beverage’s corny origins, which is why Knoxville’s Museum of East Tennessee History is hosting a surprisingly sprawling exhibit that chronicles Mountain Dew’s history.
The timeline goes back to the day of moonshine stills and Prohibition, introduces cultural cousins such as Snuffy Smith and Barney Google, Hee Haw and The Beverly Hillbillies, and ends with Mountain Dew’s post-hillbilly marketing that associates the soda with everything from NASCAR to snowboarders. Rare vintage bottles are on display — there were over 900 different early varieties, making Mountain Dew popular with collectors — and there are lots of cartoony, bearded, barefoot hillbillies with flintlock rifles and floppy hats. There’s even an exhibit devoted to early Mountain Dew imitators such as White Light-ning and Hill Billy Joose. You can watch old TV commercials and listen to vintage radio spots with titles such as “Raidin’ Varmint” and “Airyoplane.”
Displays show how Mountain Dew abandoned its hillbilly roots in 1969, then flailed for decades with flop ad campaigns (“Taste the Sunshine,” “Get That Barefoot Felling”) before embracing its sugar-and-caffeine formula to become the fuel of choice for gamers, programmers, and insomniacs in general. There’s been a homecoming of sorts as well; one showcase displays limited-time retro-brews such as Mountain Dew Throwback that have resurrected the original 1940s image of a jug of cork-popping Dew shooting a hole in a hillbilly’s hat.
The exhibit runs through January 20, 2020.
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Museum of East Tennessee History
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