Drinking out of desperation is never good policy but, sometimes, despair can serve as the mother of invention. Take the curious history of the Moscow Mule, an iconic cocktail of 2 oz. vodka, 4 oz. ginger beer and a wedge of lime served in a water-beaded copper mug.
On its origins, the histories are nearly unanimous: The Moscow Mule was an accident.
It started with an executive at G.F. Heublein & Brothers, an East Coast food and beverage company most famous up to that point for bringing A.1. steak sauce to the market.
Sometime in the late 1930s, John G. Martin acquired the Smirnoff vodka company for the sum of $14,000 and rolled it into Heublein's holdings. What might seem like a good deal was actually a big problem: Americans were either completely unfamiliar with vodka or they hated it. Some joked "vodka" was Russia for "horrendous."
In 1941, scratching his head over what do with his new acquisition, Martin paid a visit to his pal Jack Morgan, who owned the British-themed Cock 'n' Bull pub on L.A.'s Sunset Strip. As luck would have it, Morgan was in a jam of his own: He had been crafting ginger beer but, like Martin's vodka, no one was drinking it. Thus, the basement of the Cock 'n' Bull was piled high with disused crates of the stuff.
This is where accounts start to differ. Some claim Martin and Morgan came up with the idea to combine their respective unwanted products. Others say it was the brainchild of Cock 'n' Bull head bartender Wes Price. Even the signature copper mug is a mystery, making its way into the story as either the result of a Russian copper heiress trying to unload a grip of cups she couldn't sell otherwise or through Morgan's girlfriend, who owned a copper company and could provide the unusual vessels at a cut rate. Regardless, the tipple turned out to be greater than the sum of its parts. A star was born.
Dubbed "Moscow" for its association with Russia's national spirit and "Mule" in reference to the kick of the ginger beer, its ascendance into the pantheon of mid-century mixology is one of the greatest marketing schemes in the booze world. With a then-cutting edge Polaroid camera, Martin pounded the pavement in L.A., snapping photos of bartenders holding a bottle of Smirnoff in one hand and a copper-mugged Mule in the other. He left one photo with the 'tender and took the other to a competing bar to show off the next big thing. As early as 1942, Inside Hollywood reported, "There is a new drink that is a craze in the movie colony now. It is called 'Moscow Mule.'" By the 1950s (House Un-American Activities Committee notwithstanding), it was one of the most popular drinks in the country. It had its own jingle, penned by "Killer" Joe Piro, and no less than Woody Allen signed on as a pitch man in the '60s.
Sauce scholars tend to agree that despite its unlikely creation, the Moscow Mule introduced vodka to the American drinking public and launched the spirit, which would become the most-heavily consumed in the country—in 2015, Smirnoff was the top selling brand at eight of the 10 liquor stores in the Treasure Valley.
Boise Weekly mixed up a couple of Moscow Mules, however, we eschewed the familiar Smirnoff for two unique vodkas—one from Iceland, the other from Rigby, Idaho—and both ginger beer (Cock 'n' Bull, $4.95 per four-pack) and ginger ale (Fever Tree, $2.45 per 500 ML bottle).
Reyka Vodka, $19.95
From the volcanic underbelly of the far North Atlantic comes this imminently quaffable small-batch grain vodka crafted in Borganes, Iceland. Produced with arctic water in a distillery powered by geothermal energy, Reyka goes down slightly sweet with none of the astringency (i.e. nail polish remover) that typifies many less refined vodkas. Warming nicely with little to no burn, when mixed with Cock 'n' Bull, it highlights the complexities of the ginger flavor while taming some of its rougher edges. As one taster put it, "You could take a six pack of ginger beer and this vodka to any party, and it would be a hit."
Teton Glacier Potato Vodka, $19.95
Where Reyka trades on its smooth character, Teton Glacier, hailing from Rigby, Idaho, plays a lot rougher. The characteristic "vodka smell" is pronounced but, in the mouth, Teton Glacier is much smoother. While its bark is worse than its bite, mixed with Cock 'n' Bull, it presents a satisfying rounded, loamy flavor.
Well aware we were playing fast and loose with the Moscow Mule rules by sidestepping Smirnoff and introducing ginger ale, our experimentation yielded some interesting results. First, Reyka and Fever Tree ginger ale make a much better combo than Reyka and the far spicier Cock 'n' Bull ginger beer, which tends to overpower the vodka's delicacy. The thinner notes of the ginger ale allow the Icelandic entry's signature sweet, smooth nature to shine through, making for a light and icy sipper. By contrast, Teton Glacier's more aggressive profile and tuberous overtones punch at their weight with Cock 'n' Bull's spice. Mixed with ginger ale, Teton Glacier runs roughshod over its subtle sweetness, making for an uneven experience.
Both are worthy Moscow Mules, but be warned of the high sugar content in this cocktail: Cock 'n' Bull boasts 40 grams of sugar per serving, while Fever Tree ginger ale clocks in at 17 grams per serving. Mishandled, you'll be saying do svidaniya to whatever plans you had for the morning after.