“In many ways Kentucky is like what most people think it’s like and some stereotypes ring true,” explains Bruce Russell. “Like, I was an adult before I realized not everyone drinks Mountain Dew.”
The scion of renowned Wild Turkey Master Distillers Jimmy and Eddie Russell, 29-year-old Bruce now serves as the brand’s national ambassador, traveling the country peddling their world-class bourbons. But there was a time in his youth when the only way he could choke down whiskey was by chasing it with PepsiCo’s slime-green soda.
“Growing up in Kentucky, if somebody was drinking ‘almost bourbons,’” says Russell, referring to lower-end products like Mellow Corn and Kentucky Gentleman, “it was Mountain Dew that you chased it with it.”
Of course, “Mountain Dew” has long been Southern slang for moonshine; in fact, Russell speculates that the soda was originally designed to help mask the poor quality of illegal booze. “I don’t think whoever came up with Mountain Dew thought it would one day be a part of high-end mixology though,” adds Russell, “but I have to keep explaining… it’s not really an adult thing in Kentucky, it’s a 16-year-old thing.”
And, indeed, it would have probably continued to exist as a quotidian, un-ironic Kentucky call drink—hardly more interesting than a Rum and Coke—if not for Josh Seaburg, the Norfolk, Virginia, bartender who has become the face of Turkey Dew.
In June 2017, Seaburg visited Kentucky to attend Camp Runamok, the annual “summer camp for bartenders.” At the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Seaburg attended the screening of the brand’s latest Matthew McConaughey commercial and was amused by the actor’s famously unique vernacular. Later, Seaburg and some fellow attendees decided to look up the video on YouTube to see what other people were saying. One seemingly innocuous comment would set everything in motion: “Y’all need to try some wild turkey [sic] mixed with Mountain Dew. I call it a Turkey Dew. Trust me you will like it.”
The Runamok group immediately made a Mountain Dew run and began dispensing the drinks as a “layback” (a shot poured directly into someone’s mouth), accompanied by a line McConaughey utters in his Texas stoner drawl: “That’s reeeeal nice.”
What acted as an unofficial motto for the trip took on even more staying power when Seaburg, after a night drinking at Louisville’s Meta, decided to get a Turkey Dew tattoo. (The artist reworked a 1950s Mountain Dew advertisement to read “Ya-hoo! Turkey Dew. That’s real nice.”)
Meta owner Jeremy Johnson describes the Turkey Dew phenomenon as “an inside joke we took way too far.” Just how far? Seaburg commissioned the production of 101 Turkey Dew challenge coins which he would dispense to people in the know. When out-of-town bartenders would visit him at his Norfolk bar, crudo nudo, they started bringing along cans of Mountain Dew to make impromptu Turkey Dews. It remained an underground sensation until March of 2018 when Meta hosted the first-ever Turkey Dew popup event. (“Come celebrate the beautiful marriage of America’s Native Spirit with the hillbilly’s favorite juice” read the Facebook invite.)
Seaburg returned to Kentucky for the event, as did other Turkey Dew-loving bartenders from as far away as California and Reno, Nevada. A menu of seven Turkey Dew cocktails was served, including Seaburg’s Blast Word!!!!!!—a Last Word riff made with Wild Turkey, yellow Chartreuse and a syrup produced from Mountain Dew Baja Blast (an aquamarine-colored variant once exclusive to Taco Bell). In a nod to Mountain Dew’s lowbrow aesthetic, the Turkey Mint Dewlip consisted of Wild Turkey 101, Mountain Dew Ice (a lemon-lime variant) and mint, garnished with a rim of Doritos “dust.”
Just as Joe Namath’s Super Bowl III performance launched the NFL into the stratosphere, the first Turkey Dew popup skyrocketed the profile of the cocktail. As 2018 progressed, Turkey Dew began to spread to other bars in other cities, mostly as an off-menu, word-of-mouth sensation shared by former Runamok attendees and Wild Turkey brand ambassadors, like Russell and his cousin, JoAnn Street. (For what it’s worth, Gruppo Campari, Wild Turkey’s parent company, appears to have no problem with the grassroots growth of Turkey Dew; it’s been speculated that this is because the Italians in corporate don’t quite understand the soda’s stigma in America.)
In the last few months, however, Turkey Dew has finally become more formalized as an on-menu item, popping up on beverage lists all across the country, usually as a highball. It’s also been thrown into slushie machines at Meta and Austin’s Nickel City, and has received a more high-brow treatment at places like Nashville’s Henley, which offers The Dew Drop, a mix of Suze, Wild Turkey, Mountain Dew and lemon, and Portland’s Shipwreck, which created a Mountain Dew-less ode to the Turkey Dew featuring a homemade melon syrup in its place.
And, finally, in a sign that we’re approaching peak Turkey Dew, on March 3rd, Meta will hold their second annual popup featuring laybacks of Turkey Dew that have been clarified in a Spinzall centrifuge.
“It’s never going to not be funny to me,” says Seaburg of the Turkey Dew’s growing mythos. “But I don’t want to say it’ll be the next Penicillin or anything.”