The Moscow Mule


Few spirits can draw dividing lines between bartenders as quickly as vodka. Reviled by some for its boredom and lack of taste, touted by others as a perfectly blank canvas in which to mix other ingredients, no one can argue Vodka’s mass appeal and seemingly endless barrage of advertising. As popular as the spirit has always been in Eastern Europe and Russia, there was a time when Vodka was merely a fledgling industry in the United States, fighting a seemingly impossible uphill battle for market share against more familiar spirits, like whiskey, gin, and rum.

In 1934, Russian ex-pat Rudolph Kunnett began distilling vodka in the United States after purchasing the Smirnoff brand from Vladimir Smirnov. Smirnov had been distilling his eponymous vodka in France, after fleeing Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution. Five years later, Kunnett sold the company to John G Martin of G.F. Hueblein, a company famous for its A1 steak sauce, as well as (among other things) a line of bottled cocktail mixers. Martin, however, found difficulty in marketing Smirnoff vodka to American drinkers, almost leading to his termination from the company.

Meanwhile, on the west coast, Jack Morgan, proprietor of the Cock’n’Bull, an olde-English style pub on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, was having trouble selling a surplus of his house ginger beer. Ginger ale was popular at the time in America, and the flavor of ginger beer decidedly too strong for the American palate. As luck would have it, Kunnett and Martin would arrive at the Cock’n’Bull for drinks and dinner, and strike up a conversation with Morgan. Morgan’s girlfriend at the time, Ozaline Schmidt, had inherited a large copper factory from her father upon his death, and had been having some trouble finding buyers for her massive inventory, one product of which was copper drinking mugs. Someone in the group thought to combine a trifecta of bad fortune into one of the most iconic drinks of the 20th century. They added 2oz of Smirnoff vodka, a squeeze of lime, and Morgan’s ginger beer over ice in one of Schmidt’s mugs, and a legend was born. Though Martin later claimed credit for the invention, I put my money on Wes Price, head bartender at the Cock’n’Bull for actually inventing the drink. He later laid claim to the Moscow Mule, as well, stating, “I just wanted to clean out the basement!”

The onset of the United States’ involvement in World War Two put the Moscow Mule on hiatus for five years, as all alcohol production went towards the war effort. By 1946, however, Martin was back at it, peddling his vodka and his cocktail to bars across the country. In 1947, Martin acquired a Polaroid camera, which had only just been invented. At each bar he would stop at to sell his vodka, he would take two pictures of the barman holding the bottle of Smirnoff in one hand, and the Moscow Mule in the other. One picture he would leave at the bar, while the second he would show to a competitor down the street, ensuring the competitive juices of the new barkeep would convince him to buy a product that another bar was selling.

It was marketing genius. Between 1947 and 1950, sales of Smirnoff vodka tripled, as well as doubled again by 1951. It didn’t hurt that the Hollywood Elite were flocking to drink the product and its featured cocktail. All wouldn’t stay rosy for vodka, however, as growing resentment towards Communism and all things Russian led bartenders and customers alike to boycott vodka en masse. Smirnoff responded with an aggressive new ad campaign designed to narrow attention on it being an all-American product. Later ads would highlight how it left you “breathless” so that your boss at work would never know you were out to a “Three Martini Lunch.” With focus diverted from the cocktail, the Moscow Mule faded away into cocktail lore, and the Vodka Martini took center stage. Add some sloppy marketing in the 50’s and 60’s as well as the arrival of the game-changing Absolut, from Sweden, and Smirnoff itself also faded away. It wasn’t until the craft cocktail revolution of the early 2000’s that the Moscow Mule made its way back into the bartender’s lexicon, and for good reason… its delicious.

A proper Moscow Mule uses 2oz of Vodka, a 1/4oz-1/2oz freshly squeezed lime juice, poured over ice and topped with ginger beer. Some recipes include simple syrup, as Rose’s Lime Juice was used for a dark period in the mid-century. Adjust sweetness to your personal tastes, but please don’t use Rose’s. I’ll cry. Cock’n’Bull sells a set complete with copper mugs and eponymous ginger beer, a product that even Oprah Winfrey said was one of her favorite things. As a final note, there’s a good reason why I believe the drink to have been created by a bartender. In none of my research could I find anyone involved in the drink to be able to explain where the name came from. But, it’s really quite obvious. The “Mule” is, itself, a class of mixed drink. Similar to a “Buck” it is simply any liquor mixed with lime and ginger beer. The Dark ‘n Stormy is another example. Only a bartender would know enough to not only name the drink properly, but disguise his intentions from non-bartenders.

So let’s raise a glass to Wes Price, and his famous cocktail, The Moscow Mule!

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