I have arrived at Crudo Nudo restaurant in Norfolk with my own bottle of Mountain Dew, ready to experience what is probably the dumbest trend in all of cocktails.
I’m here to drink a Turkey Dew.
In Kentucky, the combination of Wild Turkey and Mountain Dew is a backwoods drinking tradition known to generations of teens — whiskey country’s answer to Smirnoff Ice, best drunk straight from the bottles in places where glassware is not near at hand.
But in the past two years it has become a tongue-in-cheek cocktail trend in high-end bars from New York to Austin to Portland. The Dew has supplanted mimosas at a bar called Henley in Nashville, filled slushie machines in Austin and popped up as bar specials in Buffalo, New York or Greensboro, N.C.
But the “face of Turkey Dew,” according to bartender magazine Punch, is Crudo bartender Josh Seaburg.
In that February piece, the drink was hailed as the new bartender’s handshake around the country, even though most bars don’t actually stock Mountain Dew — a drink that service-industry people down at each others’ bars.
We were curious: Is the Turkey Dew as big as all that?
“Oh no,” Seaburg says. “If anything, it’s even bigger than that.”
Seaburg pulls out his phone, showing a wealth of pictures: a cocktail by Portland bartender Eric Nelson, who hand-bottled a Wild Turkey cocktail mixed with a housemade Mountain Dew approximation using citric acid and melon juice. A bartender party in Toronto. A Turkey Dew pop-up event at a bar called Meta in Louisville on March 3, where Seaburg flew out to be a guest bartender — a showcase of complicated concoctions made with house syrups, clarified Mountain Dew and foamy egg white.
“Bruce Russell really likes telling people that I didn’t invent the Turkey Dew,” Seaburg says. “But he was telling me that I kind of took over this whole thing a little bit.”
The drink, of course, is a cheery abomination. But it’s also better than you might think.
In its original form as a backwoods Kentucky layback — the technical term for a drink poured directly from a bottle into a waiting mouth — the drink is both hot and toxic, a chemical fire across the palate.
But as a whiskey chaser or boilermaker, the inscrutable neon taste of Mountain Dew is strangely soothing, the same way industrial coolant soothes an overheating engine.
This was, in fact the Tennessee citrus soda’s original purpose. “Mountain dew” is just an old slang term for moonshine, later popularized in song by bluegrass band the Stanley Brothers. In the 1930s, brothers Barney and Ally Hartman marketed their dewy creation as a chaser for whiskey, a purpose it has continued to serve near the place of its birth.
But like a lot of what’s great in America, the story of the modern Turkey Dew begins with actor Matthew McConaughey. Seaburg, along with other bartenders from around the country, attended a June 2017 “sleepover whiskey camp for bartenders” called Camp Runamok, sponsored by a host of whiskey distilleries including Wild Turkey.
There, Seaburg watched the premiere of a Wild Turkey commercial starring McConaughey, sipping reserve whiskey with 85-year-old master distiller Jimmy Russell.
On the comments below the YouTube video, a commenter issued a fateful recommendation: “Y’all need to try some wild turkey mixed with Mountain Dew I call it a Turkey Dew. Trust me you will like it.”
The group made the immediate trip for some Mountain Dew, and the bartenders began pouring Turkey Dews as a layback shot — a drink poured directly from bottles into a waiting mouth. After each shot, the proper response was, “That’s realllll niccce.”
The history of the drink could have ended there. But over the past two years, Seaburg has become a sort of ambassador for the drink.
He had Turkey Dew bar tokens made, meant to be redeemed by other members of the service industry, whoe were encouraged to BYOD — Bring Your Own Dew — for shots. He tattooed the cocktail on his leg in the style of an old Mountain Dew advertisement from the 1930s: “Yoohoo! Turkey Dew — That’s Real Nice.”
And in February 2018, Seaburg and other bartenders put together the first Turkey Dew pop-up at Meta in Louisivlle. After that, the cocktail began to take off at bars around the country.
Though Seaburg says the Dew was all whimsy at first — no money changed hands — he has since become a “semi-formal” ambassador for Wild Turkey. The company has leaned into the trend, and has begun to push the drink at events sponsored by the brand.
At the Meta pop-up both last year and this year, Seaburg served up a variation on the Prohibition-style Last Word cocktail made with Baja Blast Mountain Dew.
To try it, I must first obtain the key ingredient, which is available only at Taco Bell: a small cup of the taco chain’s proprietary bright-blue Dew formula. In the drive-through, when I insist I need my Baja Blast with no ice because I’m using it as a cocktail mixer, the cashier on Monticello Avenue is noticeably unamused.
The resulting drink involves cooking the Baja Blast on a pan to reduce it to sweet, flavored syrup, which is mixed with Wild Turkey and yellow chartreuse and served in a pinkies-up coupe glass.
The drink, whose color is seen elsewhere only in lava lamps, is startlingly balanced, if perturbed by a slight chemical undertow like the sweet smell of swimming pools. It’s a kind of magic trick, elegant in its stupidity.
For some bartenders, the Turkey Dew is a kind of relief from the grim seriousness of Prohibition-style cocktail bars.
“I think it’s hilarious that Turkey Dew is suddenly becoming a thing,” says Nelson, the bartender in Portland who made the bottled Dew cocktail. “I think cocktail bars are getting fun again — it’s moving away from mustaches and dourness. You can actually do a Turkey Dew and make people happy.”
“It’s (expletive) stupid, and I love it,” Seaburg says.
Still, Seaburg doesn’t plan to put any version of the Turkey Dew on his own menu anytime soon at Crudo Nudo, located at 727 W 21st Street in Ghent.
If you want one there, you’ll have to walk in with your own Mountain Dew.
“We’re keeping it strictly BYOD,” Seaburg says.