Happy Hour History: The Moscow Mule

Moscow Mule

Moscow Mule

By JIM SABATASO | STAFF

Editor’s note: This part of a series exploring the history of various cocktails the author likes to make for happy hour. Enjoy responsibly. 

Today, I’ve got the perfect quaff for your May Day Happy Hour: the Moscow Mule. This cocktail may have commie connotations, but its origins are all capitalist, comrade. Indeed, the Mule was a solution to the problem of selling a product nobody wanted. And its early success was achieved through good old-fashioned American hustle and viral marketing.

History

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: 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,” though credit most likely goes to bartender Wes Price.

(“Inventive genius”)

Whomever the genius, all three men knew they were onto something. Morgan, whose girlfriend owned a company that made copper mugs (no conflict of interest there), suggested they use engraved cups to brand the drink. The drink quickly became popular among the Hollywood crowd.

In 1947, Martin bought one of the first Polaroid camera and went on the road to promote the cocktail 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.

Pictured: Things getting weird.

Pictured: Things getting 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. However, the drink has enjoyed a comeback in recent years as upscale bars look to the past when designing their cocktails menus.

Recipe

Moscow Mule

  • 2 oz Vodka
  • 3 to 4 oz Ginger beer
  • 2 Lime wedges

Add the vodka and ginger beer to a copper Moscow Mule mug or highball glass filled with ice, and stir. Squeeze the lime wedges into the drink before adding them to the glass. Stir briefly.

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