The drink – created to spur sales of vodka, ginger beer and copper mugs – has been keeping imbibers’ thirsts quenched since 1941.
Maybe it’s because the recipe is easy to remember. Or that it’s full of flavor yet completely approachable. Or that drinking it out of a copper mug just makes it feel special. Whatever the reason, the Moscow Mule has endured. This year marks the 75th since a few industry players combined vodka, ginger beer and lime in that distinctive mug, and the current cocktail revival makes it a perfect time to look back at the genesis of it all.
In 1941, John Martin of Smirnoff Vodka met with Jack Morgan, the owner of The Cock ‘n Bull Pub in Santa Monica, California. Morgan also happened to have a stock of ginger beer, and the two men collaborated to spark sales of their respective products, which were both pretty unpopular at the time. They mixed the two, added a squirt of lime, and christened it the Moscow Mule. Throughout the rest of the decade, they launched a marketing campaign to create buzz about the drink, with Martin traveling around the country with an instant camera (a new invention at the time) to capture photos of bartenders holding mugs with the libation.
Tales of the Cocktail named 2016 “The Year of the Mule,” and featured the drink at its cocktail competition held during the yearly conference. At Tales, Smirnoff also hosted an immersive dinner to bring the story of the creation of the Moscow Mule to life. Held at the Little Gem Saloon in New Orleans – which for the evening became a pop up of the Cock ‘n Bull Pub – actors and actresses portrayed the key players, and the decor, music and ambiance transported everyone back to 1941. “By attending the dinner, guests had the chance to experience a small but vital piece of cocktail history,” says Jay Sethi, vice president of marketing for Smirnoff Vodka. “We hope our dinner was truly a highlight of Tales of the Cocktail, providing them a historical lens into the evolution of cocktail culture as they experienced modern cocktail culture in other Tales of the Cocktail events.”
Also at Tales was JJ Resnick, founder of the recently relaunched Moscow Copper Co., which crafts artisanal copper mugs inspired by the original. In 1941, immigrant Sophie Berezinski brought over with her 2,000 copper mugs from her father’s factory in Moscow. She had a hard time selling the mugs around her adopted home of Los Angeles, and headed one day to the Cock ‘n Bull. There she met Martin and Morgan, with whom she forged a partnership to promote the cocktail and the vessel in which it’s served. Today, Moscow Copper Co. uses Berezinski’s original molds to create full-sized and shot glass-sized recreations of the mugs.
And what about it? Does the mug really change the experience of drinking a Moscow Mule? Resnick answers with an unequivocal, resounding “yes.” “It is a scientific fact that a chemical reaction takes place when the vodka and ginger beer hit the surface of the copper, which magnifies the carbonation and showcases the clear spirit,” he explains. “The bright and shiny copper mugs set this cocktail aside from all the others served in high balls and martini glasses... You can taste the difference.”
Unfortunately for bar owners, the coveted mugs are often procured by guests who view the glassware as a takeaway for their home bar. To prevent and discourage theft, the Moscow Copper Co. has recently launched a new program. Whenever a customer purchases a mug from the company or one of its participating bars, they receive a Copper Card that grants them membership into what the company deems the Mulehead Nation. At a bar, they simply hand the card (rather than a credit card or driver’s license) to the bartender when they order a Moscow Mule as collateral; it’s given back to them after they finish the drink and return the mug. “Rather than a feeling of mistrust by the establishment, the customer gets a feeling of exclusivity and belonging as non-members drink their mules out of boring glasses,” touts Resnick. “And non-members have the opportunity to join the club right then and there at the restaurant by purchasing their mug (copper card included) on the spot.” The card also brings with it incentives and discounts.
So just why has the Moscow Mule endured for seventy-five years? “Let’s face it, a Mule isn’t the fanciest recipe for a bartender to recreate, but it is a solid recipe that results in a great tasting cocktail,” says Ed Eiswirth, beverage director for Del Frisco’s Grille. “The Mule provides a way to drink a classic without being overpowered.”
Resnick says the drink’s distinctive flavor profile can be tweaked to appeal to a wide audience. “The spicy yet sweet bite of the ginger, mixed with the tangy lime and the kick of the vodka create a delicious cocktail that is both sophisticated and refreshing,” he muses. “There’s nothing not to love about it!”
The Original Moscow Mule Cocktail
- 2 oz. Smirnoff Vodka
- 6 oz. chilled Cock ‘n Bull Ginger Beer
- 1 tsp. simple syrup
- ¼ oz. lime juice
- Lime wedge, for garnish
Fill a copper mug with ice. Add vodka and lime juice, then ginger beer and simple syrup; stir to mix. Garnish with the lime wedge.
Variations on the Mule abound, and while you can’t technically call them Moscow Mules, their inclusion of ginger beer with other spirits and ingredients makes for spicy, thirst-quenching sipping nonetheless:
Fort McNair Mule
Recipe courtesy of CityBar, Washington, DC
“The appeal of a Mule is that is is light, refreshing and palatable,” says bartender Luis Mantilla. “I wanted to highlight mezcal and create a refreshing cocktail that would work well in the summer.” He skips the ginger beer in favor of a syrup made from ginger root, and Peychaud’s Bitters lend it its pink hue.
- 2 oz. Monte Alban Mezcal
- 1 oz. ginger syrup
- 1 oz. lime juice
- ¼ oz. demerara simple syrup
- 3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
- Lime wheel, for garnish
Add all ingredients except garnish into a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake until chilled. Empty contents into a copper mug and garnish with the lime wheel.
The New South Mandrin Mule
Recipe courtesy of Soby’s, Greenville, South Carolina
The Mule gets a dose of citrus and elderflower in this take on the classic from the South Carolina restaurant. Blood orange puree gives it a nice color, and the Mason jar is an unexpected departure from the copper mug.
- 1 ½ oz. Absolut Mandrin vodka
- ¾ oz. St. Germain
- ¾ oz. blood orange puree
- ½ oz. simple syrup
- 3 lime wedges
- Ginger beer
Combine all ingredients except 1 lime wedge and ginger beer in a Mason Jar. Muddle the lime wedges, fill the jar with ice and top with ginger beer. Stir to combine and garnish with the remaining lime wedge.
Recipe courtesy of Del Frisco’s Grille, Washington, DC
Eiswirth says this drink plays off the resurgence of gin and the popularity of the Moscow Mule. “Nolet’s Gin provides notes of raspberry and Turkish rose and combines great with ginger beer to create a light, crisp and refreshing cocktail.” They purposely eschew the copper mug in favor of a wine glass to make it stand out.
- 1 ½ oz. Nolet’s Gin
- 3 ½ oz. Gosling's Ginger Beer
- Red grapefruit wedge and mint sprig, for garnish
Add gin and ginger beer to a wine glass over ice. Stir to combine, and garnish with the grapefruit wedge and mint sprig.
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.