The Moscow Mule is an interesting drink well suited to this blog. It’s not particularly difficult to make. But learning how it came to be is to open your mind to the history of cocktails. How and why they came to be invented and popularized. As such, it is a fascinating topic.
The Moscow Mule consists primarily of vodka, ginger beer and freshly squeezed lime juice. Though there are a few other optional ingredients too. It is quite similar to the Dark and Stormy. It could also be considered to be a Buck. These are a family of cocktails which utilize ginger beer or ale, citrus juice and a variable base spirit. These days they could be thought of as an earlier name for a family we now tend to call Mules. It seems like the popularity of the Moscow Mule was so great it rewrote some cocktail naming conventions.
I would consider a Moscow Mule to fall into the Light and Refreshing category of my Taste Profile model. However, due to its length and stature I also have to accept it as being a Long and Serious cocktail as well.
As strange as it may seem now, there was a time before vodka became a staple spirit of bars. Quite a long time, in fact. As late as the first few decades of the 20th century, vodka was little more than a peculiar niche product. The stars were gin, rum, brandy and various styles of whiskey. They were the popular spirits with both bartenders and customers. To illustrate this, consider vodka’s role in the 1st edition of the extremely influential Savoy Cocktail Book, written by Harry Craddock in 1930. Out of the eight hundred cocktail recipes listed, only two contained vodka!
I’d consider vodka back then to how Pisco has featured during my own bartending career. Pisco is a regional spirit with a long heritage. It is internationally known, but of very limited popularity. Only one classic cocktail uses it – the Pisco Sour. And even the best stocked modern bars will have only a single type. That’s how vodka was before the 1940s.
Then its popularity took off. Why was this? Well I’d wager that it was due to the wartime alliance between the Western Allies of Britain, France and America with Russia. True, vodka doesn’t only come from Russia. But if Poles or Swedes brought vodka to the west and popularized it, why didn’t this happen before the 1940s? Before the 1940s the Soviet Union of Stalin was shunned by the west, and wasn’t exactly open to tourists. But once Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 the alliance was on, and relations warmed up. For a while at least.
The Rise of Vodka
Good relations between Soviet Russia and the West barely outlived WWII before descending into the Cold War. But by the time that the US was in the grips of the Red Scare of the 1950s when anything deemed “Communist” was vilified, vodka had already established itself. And in some ways, vodka ironically came to represent the new post war world.
For example, the James Bond novels were written in the early 1950s. In them, Bond is depicted as being a new man of his time. True, this is sometimes shown by his fashion sense, and his love of fast cars and fast women. But originally it was his choice of drink which marked him out. First his Vesper Martini, and later his iconic “Vodka Martini, shaken not stirred”. The sheer fact that he chose vodka, the new spirit of the moment, over the Cognac than his boss M drank marked him out as part of a new generation.
Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s vodka would rise to become one of the cocktail world’s key spirits. This is part was due to aggressive marketing. Just like with Bond, vodka became the drink of choice for the upcoming generation. But also due to the popularity of cocktails such as the Moscow Mule and the Screwdriver.
I’ve come across a couple of competing stories for how the Moscow Mule was created, with both showcasing a key factor of cocktail creation and growth in popularity. Both agree that the Moscow Mule was created in Manhattan in the 1940s from Smirnoff vodka and Cock ‘n’ Bull ginger beer with citrus juice.
One attributes the creation to an exasperated bartender named Wes Price who was trying to come up with a way to move stock out of his cellar. Though few realize it, this is actually one of the key drivers of cocktail creation. A boss needing to get rid of stuff that isn’t selling tasking himself or his bartenders with coming up with a good way to move it. In this case the stock was Smirnoff vodka and ginger beer.
The other story goes straight to the top. To the guys who owned the Smirnoff and Cock ‘n’ Bull brands themselves. They weren’t selling much, so to improve sales they created a concept that is considered standard practice these days. They created a signature cocktail using their products. Then, they toured the country visiting bartenders and convincing them to try it out. As a marketing technique they purchased an early Polaroid camera and would take photos with each bartender they convinced. One for the bar, and one for an album they took with them to show the next bartender just how popular it was. Plus they served their early Mules in copper mugs, for added distinctiveness.
The original recipe for a Moscow Mule definitely consisted of Smirnoff vodka and ginger beer. Some say with lemon juice, but lime is now considered as standard. However, don’t think you need to use Smirnoff to make it authentic. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as the Smirnoff of today is not exactly top quality. It’s only borderline decent quality.
Also, like with the Dark and Stormy, many bartenders choose to add a dash of Angostura Bitters to a Moscow Mule. Myself included. It helps to round out the drink. Now how much lime juice you want to add is your call. I tend to suggest the freshly squeezed juice of half a lime. But some prefer it more sour and may want to take it up to a full lime. Others want it sweeter and add a little sugar syrup. That is purely a matter of your own personal taste and manipulating the Balance of Sour accordingly.
Further ingredients could be used, but I’ll save a discussion of them to talking about Moscow Mule Variants.
As with a Dark and Stormy, there are two common methods for making a Moscow Mule. Built and muddled. Both are acceptable. Both use the same ingredients. The only difference is how you add the fresh lime juice. If you have access to a Mexican Elbow then I’d advise the Built method – it’s far more efficient. But if you don’t then the muddled method is fine. Either way, start with a highball glass or similar.
For the built method, start by filling it with cubed ice. Pour in *some* ginger beer – maybe one third of the glass full. Then add: a couple dashes of Angostura Bitters; two shots vodka; and the freshly squeezed juice of half a lime (to taste). Then top up with ginger beer, give it a very quick stir and serve. Very simple, and easy to scale up to making it by the jug if needed.
For the muddled method, drop your sliced pieces of lime (still usually 1/2 a lime) into the glass. If you’re using it, add your sugar syrup at this point too. Muddle them together. Then fill the glass with crushed ice. This is far easier to churn than cubed ice, and with pieces of lime stuck to the bottom of the glass, you’ll need to churn. Then add all of the same other ingredients as before, churn and serve. This method is similar to the way you would make a Mojito. It has the similar drawback that you have to make each one individually. Plus it takes more time and effort. Because of this it is not my preferred method, but still works just fine.