Born in Southwest Virginia, the History of “Mountain Dew”

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Image: Early Mountain Dew ad
Image: Early Mountain Dew ad

Long before the soda craze of the early-1900s, the term “Mountain Dew” had been used to describe a leading beverage among the mountain people of the Appalachians – albeit a far less, shall we say, “legal drink”.

In fact, a popular Irish folk song dating back to 1882 exclaimed:

Now learned men as use the pen
Have writ’ the praises high
Of the rare poteen from Ireland green
Distilled from wheat and rye
Away with your pills, it’ll cure all ills
So take off your coat and grease your throat
With a bucket of mountain dew.

But today, we’re going to talk about the history of the other “Mountain Dew” — the one that comes in a green can and is generally seen on the edges of picnic tables at backyard barbecues throughout “Dew Country.”

Obtaining its name from the generic mountain word used to describe “whiskey”, it should come as no surprise to learn that Mountain Dew was first developed as a mixer-drink for bars in the Knoxville, Tennessee, area in 1940.

The original formula was invented by Tennessee beverage bottlers Barney and Ally Hartman.

According to an article first published in the Virginia Pilot roughly 23 years ago, former Marion Mayor Marshall E. Guy said the drink “never took off” while the Harman’s controlled the brand.

The duo first approached Coca-Cola, asking for a partnership to help them get their struggling drink to on the right track, but the soft drink giant turned down the offer.

Ultimately, the pair sold the rights to their formula and brand to the Tip Corporation of Marion, Virginia.

Bill Jones of the Tip Corporation immediately went to work attempting to make the brand marketable and eventually developed an entirely new drink in the process.

“‘He fixed it so it had just a little more tang to it,’ Guy recalls. ‘He’d take little cups marked A, B, C, and D around to high-schools and drug stores and factories and ask people which of the mixtures in them tasted best. That’s how he developed his formula.'” reported Larry Maddry.

Jones’ new recipe, which was launched in 1961, called for extremely higher levels of citrus flavoring and caffeine — a combination that found a receptive audience in the taste buds of the local townspeople of Marion, Virginia.

Mountain Dew quickly grew in popularity throughout Southwest Virginia and in August 1964, Jones traveled to New York City and sold his newly developed brand to Pepsi.

As the story goes, he returned to his small Virginia town where he was greeted by his friends, opened up his wallet and stated, “Well fellas, I’m $20 short of being a millionaire.”

A hat was then passed around and soon, Jones had obtained the $20 needed in order to officially be a millionaire!

With the soft drink manufacturer Pepsi now controlling the Mountain Dew brand, distribution was ramped up and soon folks from Florida to Canada were enjoying the heavy-sugar, heavy-caffeinated concoction.

Today, even in the face of numerous detracting media stories, the vast majority of which focus on the health effects excessing drinking of Mountain Dew can have upon a person, Mountain Dew enjoys an unshakeable position at the top of its league: MtnDew accounts for 80-percent of citrus soft drinks sold within the U.S., while Coca-Cola Company’s Mello Yello, Surge, and Dr Pepper Snapple Group’s Sun Drop must split the difference.

The next time you “Do the Dew,” you can thank Marion, Virginia, resident William “Bill” Jones.

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