The Moscow Mule may have communist connotations, but its origins are as capitalist as it gets, comrade. Indeed, the Mule was a solution to the problem of selling several products nobody wanted. And its early success was achieved through good ol’ fashion American hustle and guerilla marketing.
In 1939, John Martin, head of GF Heublein Brothers — a distributor of food and alcohol — bought the rights to Smirnoff vodka from a broke Russian ex-pat named Rudolph Kunett. At the time, gin was the clear spirit of choice in the States. Martin set about to turn America on to vodka. Easier said then done.
By 1941, sales of Smirnoff were still soft. Martin’s colleague Jack Morgan, president the Cock ‘n’ Bull Products, was having a similar problem with his company’s ginger beer. So one night they got together to strategize how to unload their respective products (read: they went out drinking.) Sitting at Morgan’s Cock ‘n’ Bull restaurant on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, the men combined the vodka and ginger beer for the first time. Martin called this a stroke of “inventive genius.”
Morgan, whose girlfriend owned a company that made copper mugs, suggested they use engraved cups to make the new drink stand out. The cocktail quickly became popular among the Hollywood crowd, who apparently had an affinity for both booze and shiny objects.
In 1947, Martin bought one of the first Polaroid cameras, and went on the road to promote his creation by taking photos of bartenders posing with the iconic copper mug and a bottle of Smirnoff. The photos circulated, and soon bars were leaping to make the Mule and not be left behind by the competition. By 1950, sales of Smirnoff had more than tripled.
Then things got weird.
The Red Scare of the 1950s presented a new challenge as bartenders boycotted both Smirnoff and the drink, calling it un-American. Journalist Walter Winchell came to its defense in 1951, writing, “The Moscow Mule is US-made, so don’t be political when you’re thirsty.” But the damage had been done. The Mule never rebounded, and it’s popularity continued to decline into the 1960s. Fortunately, the cocktail has enjoyed a comeback in recent years as people have rediscovered its subtle bite and refreshing flavor — a perfect summertime sipper that will still warm you in the cooler months.
Moscow Mule Recipe
2 oz. vodka
3-4 oz. ginger beer
2 lime wedges
Directions: Add the vodka and ginger beer to a copper mug or highball glass filled with ice, and stir. Squeeze the lime wedges into the drink before adding them to the glass. Stir briefly. A nice variation is to use a cucumber slice as a garnish in place of the lime. The cool freshness of the cuke is a great complement.
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