Mountain Dew dripped here first

by Hank Hayes

Reprinted from the February, 1994 issue of the Blountville, TN "Business Journal."

The name is as old as the hills.

Mountain Dew, one of the nation's largest selling non-cola beverages, began flowing from Johnson City in December 1954 courtesy of Tri-City Beverage Co., now one of the last independent bottlers left in the Southeast.

The idea for the lithiated-lemon beverage originally came from Knoxvillian Ollie Hartman, but Tri-City beverage CEO Charles Gordon handled its initial production.

Gordon was like most ex-GIs competing in the post-World War II economy.  He had little money and experience.

But his marketing concept for Mountain Dew - combining the provincialism of the area with 1950s merchandising - resulted in sales magic. The beverage, billed as "zero proof hillbilly moonshine," sold best in returnable 8-ounce bottles.

"We are in a dry section of the state and the product has to sell as a beverage," gordon told The American Bottler after Mountain Dew's sales began to take off.

Gordon immediately capitalized on the newest of advertising media - television. On Johnson City's WJHL-TV, Gordon had a 30-minute weekly show selling Mountain Dew while giving viewers the latest hunting and fishing information.

The folksy show played on the area's love affair with the outdoors and captured viewers from a five-state area.

Fishing lure manufacturers got in on the show, giving away lures to viewers in a weekly drawing.

"That was a great program," Gordon said in a recent interview. "We got fantastic results from that."

But at the time, Gordon was only able to reap sales from Mountain Dew in Upper East Tennessee and one county in Southwest Virginia.  It was time for the product to enter new markets.

Gordon decided to transfer Mountain Dew's copyright to a Marion, Va., bottler, which proceeded to line up the beverage with other bottlers.

Pepsi ultimately took notice and acquired the exclusive rights to the beverage. After taking over Mountain Dew, Pepsi gave the beverage a more mainstream image, dropping the mountaineer from the bottle design because it looked too provincial.

The Mountain Dew creators never believed their down home beverage would make the big time.

"We were thinking (Mountain Dew) would do well just for this locality," Gordon determined.

"We weren't thinking too much about selling it on a national basis."