Spirits & Liqueurs Bourbon

Mountain Dew and Bourbon: How an Appalachian Tradition Turned Into an Unlikely Craft Cocktail

Tim Nusog

Mountain Dew blazed onto the bartending scene in 2017 at Camp Runamok, a summer camp for bartenders hosted 40 minutes south of Louisville, Ky. A series of events involving Wild Turkey, Matthew McConaughey and YouTube commenters led bartender Josh Seaburg to discover the Turkey Dew, a simple low-brow combination of Mountain Dew and bourbon. Turkey Dew became the camp’s official drink that week, and Seaburg helped launch Turkey Dew pop-ups and issued Turkey Dew challenge coins.

It’s was a spectacular industry joke, a moment when yellow #5, corn syrup and caffeine infiltrated craft cocktails. The Turkey Dew was a revelation to bartenders from Detroit, Reno and Norfolk, Va.—cities represented in the original Turkey Dew pop-up—but the concept is nothing new in Appalachia. Mountain Dew was developed by Ally and Barney Hartman in Knoxville, Tenn., in the late 1940s, and its name alludes to its original purpose: as a mixer for lesser-quality bourbons.

Camp Runamok. Camp Runamok

Mountain Dew is mountain slang for “whiskey”; the phrase appears in Irish folk songs from the late 19th century and in an American folk song protesting Prohibition. The latter, simply titled “Mountain Dew,” was composed in 1920 by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, an attorney in Asheville, N.C.

In that same city, in 2015 (82 years after Prohibition ended and a full two years before the Turkey Dew phenomenon), the Family Traditions cocktail debuted at Buxton Hall, chef Elliott Moss’ award-winning whole-hog smoke joint. The drink was developed by Kyle Beach, Buxton Hall’s general manager, and its ingredient list reads like Appalachian magic: bourbon, house Mountain Dew and Tang, the concentrated orange drink powder popularized by astronauts in the early 1960s.

Unlike Camp Runamok’s Turkey Dew, Beach’s Dew drink isn’t a punchline. It was a way for him to weave personal narrative and regional history into Buxton’s bar program.

Beach’s grandfather Jesse Beach was a tenant farmer and factory worker in eastern North Carolina with a penchant for doctored whiskey. “[Jesse] was a bit of a louse, a moonshiner, a penny poker player and, most certainly, a cheating womanizer and poor husband to my grandmother Mildred,” says Beach. “While grandma was off doing farm work before her wait shift at R&C Restaurant, my grandfather would be in his recliner, watching soap operas and drinking Ancient Ancient Age bourbon with Mountain Dew and a tablespoon of Tang mixed in, chewing Red Man tobacco and spitting into a styrofoam cup.”

Jesse kept the bourbon in a paper bag under the sink, according to Beach. His beloved combination of bourbon, Dew and Tang was “so saccharine sweet it’ll make your mouth pucker,” says Beach. He wanted to honor family drinking lore, along with the story of the south in the ’50s and ’60s, but first he had to do away with the Dew. His solution was to make citrus soda in-house, starting with an orange-lime oleo saccharum laced with malic and citric acids to give it that soft-drink zing. “While it’s not a direct representation of Mountain Dew, the soda itself is quite good, and Mountain Dew fans can taste the resemblance,” he says.

Buxton Hall. Buxton Hall

Buxton’s bar team, led by Brandon Grogan, batches the oleo with bourbon and soda water and kegs the whole concoction. And instead of grandpa’s original Tang, they rim glasses with a mixture of dehydrated orange zest, sugar and citric acid.

Four years in to Buxton’s run, the Family Traditions is still a top seller, falling just behind the restaurant’s other Southern soda homage, a bourbon-Cheerwine slushie. Grogan continues to introduce mountain influences on the menu, highlighting Appalachian fernet and nocino from Eda Rhyne, a local distiller, and incorporating sumac (“that grows every 100 feet here,” he says) into a bourbon-amaro drink.

Neither Beach nor Grogran were familiar with the Turkey Dew hoopla over in Kentucky. “The drink is really just inspired by a grandpa in eastern North Carolina,” says Grogan. “I’m positive he didn’t know about Turkey Dew either.”