It’s a pretty and refreshing beverage for hot sunny days, our popular and boozy friend the Moscow Mule. A good hit of alcohol from the punch of vodka, ginger beer’s nifty fizz, and the Gemini sisters of summer slurping--lime and plenty of ice—make it a perennial favorite. And it couldn’t be easier to make, simply mixed up right there in the glass with basic ingredients. But it's complex, too; amongst booze nerds, the Moscow Mule tells the story of America’s love/hate relationship with vodka and how we’ve come to tasty détente after decades of derision.
Vodka can be made from just about any shit that grows: grain, fruit, seeds, herbs, vegetables, and nightshades like potatoes. But because of vodka’s modern rectified distilling process, its base flavors are pretty much stripped bare-ass nekkid as a result. Vodka’s stronghold in world history was firmly seated in northern Europe, with Scandinavians and Polish peasants making theirs from grain or abundant potatoes. And after Peter the Great apocryphally brought the art of distilling to Russia, their aristocracy held a monopoly on vodka production and distribution for generations. Queue the Russian revolution in 1917, when zealous teetotaler Lenin had the official booze-making family to the czar executed. Well, all except for one guy, that is. One Mr. Vladimir Smirnoff who escaped from prison, high-tailed it to Paris, and took the family’s secret vodka recipe right along with him.
Over the next couple of decades, Smirnoff had a tough time marketing his family’s vodka, especially in the United States. Here, hardly anyone had ever heard of the stuff, as Americans in that era generally preferred their booze to taste, well, boozier (think flavorful beers, well-aged bourbon, herbal gin, big-ass brandies). The company that bought Smirnoff’s American rights in the 1930s unsuccessfully promoted vodka as a vehicle for drinks where the mixers were meant to shine, rather than the base spirit. Enter the Moscow Mule in 1946: the marketing brain-child of said vodka company and some guys at the Cock ‘n’ Bull, a British style pub operating in Los Angeles that had a surplus of house-made ginger brew they were trying to move. Add a schmancy drinking vessel in the form of a distinctive copper cup, a lime wedge à la the Cuba Libre, some catchy alliteration, and you’ve got yourselves a left coast sensation that soon swept the nation. Smirnoff’s groovy mid-century slogan was “Smirnoff: it leaves you breathless,” giving it a decided edge against easily detectable bourbon breath for folks intent on getting steadily shit-faced well before Happy Hour. In an irony not lost on drinks historians, vodka sales eclipsed all other spirits by 1976, leading one booze writer to note, “America may have claimed victory in the Cold War but Russia has claimed our livers ever since.” It’s only been in the past two years that whiskey sales (led by single malt Scotch lovers and the Bourbon Boom) have recovered the edge over vodka in the U.S. of A.
Several local spots in the 801 make excellent variations on the Moscow Mule, including our friends over at Finca who’ve been experimenting with a kickass version they’re calling the “Malabar Mule,” using Thai basil and Arbol chili. But lucky for we denizens of the Beehive state, there’s plenty of raw material available right damn here to craft an excellent beverage in the comfort of your own back yard. Or the front steps of our office (in the good company of the fellas from Sugar House Distillery). Now, let’s set up the bar, shall we?
THE BOOZE: Vodka, by definition, is a colorless, odorless, and neutral-tasting spirit. However, subtle flavor and mouth-feel differences are apparent due to the base ingredients, the number of distillations used to purify the vodka (a process called rectifying), filtering methods, the kind of water used to cut the vodka to proof for bottling, and the percentage of alcohol by volume. No need to blow a lot o’ dinero on your vodka, friends; this is under $30 a bottle mixology going on here. Utah’s swimming in locally-bottled vodka options. Support your local boozemongers!
THE FIZZ: What’s the difference between a Highball, Rickey, Collins, Fizz, Buck, or Mule? Well, what they’ve all got in common is the addition of a carbonated liquid to booze, making all these drinks fall under the Highball category (booze + fizzy something, whatever that be). But generally the following fast and loose rules apply: Rickeys are lime plus club soda; a Collins uses lemon juice, sugar, and club soda; a Fizz is more-or-less a Collins but with no ice in the serving glass; Bucks have booze plus ginger ale; and Mules use ginger beer. Yup, there’s a difference. Ginger ale is sweeter, milder, and less spicy, making it the perfect combo with saltine crackers when you have a tummy ache (thanks, Mom). Ginger beer is a non-alcoholic concoction with more pronounced ginger flavors, strong citrus notes, and a milder sweet base.
THE CITRUS: Use fresh limes, you knob-headed philistines. No, you may not use lime juice from a plastic squeeze bottle. Ever. Guh.
THE VESSEL: Remember those fellas at the Cock ‘n’ Bull who were pimping ginger beer? The story goes something like this: they also knew a guy who had a surplus of copper mugs lying around (apparently nobody’d heard of market research in LA). They engraved the bar logo on the mugs along with names of Hollywood stars, hoping those celebrities would come in to use “their” personal mugs. Et voilà! They did. Now everybody wanted a copper mug. Because celebrities. Similar to the silver Mint Julep cup, the function of the vessel is nominally to keep the drink frosty cold. If you don’t have a set on hand, no worries: a tall Collins glass serves up a pretty and well-chilled beverage, as do nearly indestructible Mason jars (my own fave for serving Bucks and Mules).
Let’s stir ‘em up, babycakes...
The Moscow Mule [the classic as described by booze historian David Wondrich for Esquire.com]: Squeeze ½ lime into a tall Collins glass (or Moscow Mule mug), and drop in the spent shell. Add a few ice cubes, then pour in 2 oz. vodka and 4-6 oz. cold ginger beer. Serve with a stirring rod.
Wasatch Wiseass [the tasty version you see being sucked up by yours truly, below]: Our variation on the Moscow Mule uses local Sugar House Distillery Vodka (thanks guys!) and Garwood’s Ginger Beer, a delightful and potent concoction made right here in the SLC and available at Liberty Heights Fresh, Vive Juicery, and Farmer’s Markets. Because Garwood’s has significantly more fabulously-bracing citrus and spicy ginger flavors than most other commercially available ginger beers (especially their extra ginger version), a little note of cucumber and sweet mint rounds it all out. Squeeze ¼ lime into a tall Collins glass (or pint mason jar), and drop in the spent shell. Add 2-3 slices English or Persian cucumber (the narrow thin-skinned ones, also called cocktail cucumbers) and muddle thoroughly. Smack a large sprig of mint between your palms (as if giving it a pert spanking), and drop it in the glass. Add 4-5 ice cubes, 2 oz. SHD vodka, ½ oz. simple syrup, and top with Garwood’s Ginger Beer (about 4-5 oz.).
Now, find yourself any ol' porch and a few pals. Then drink up and cool down. #happysummer