The first thing I ever ordered at a real cocktail bar was a Moscow Mule. It was pretty early on in the still-vibrant cocktail revival and the bartender recommended the mule as a good entry-level drink: The flavors—ginger and lime—were familiar to me, the spirit was certainly not overwhelming for a novice and also it came in an awesome copper cup.
Whatever cup I drank it out of was probably inauthentic though. The very first Moscow Mules were served in a limited edition run of copper mugs brought over from Russia. And the family that made those original mugs has decided to get back into the mule mug business after 74 years. Avid mule drinkers can get their hands on another limited edition run of the cups made to the same specifications as the ones brought over from the Soviet Union in 1941. And this time they don’t need to steal them from the bars.
The rebirth of the original vessel seems like a good time to unearth the history of the drink itself. Here are five things you might not know about how the Moscow Mule came to be:
1. The Moscow Mule combined two ingredients no one wanted at the time.
In 1941 at the Cock ‘N’ Bull in Hollywood, the bar owner found himself unable to sell either the cases of Smirnoff Vodka he had purchased or the bottles of house made ginger beer. Wes Price, the bartender at the time, said he was just trying to clear out the basement.
2. Those famous mugs were a stroke of serendipity.
An immigrant named Sophie Berezinski came to California with 2,000 copper mugs she had designed in her father’s copper shop in Russia. She carted them around L.A., trying to sell them “lest her husband toss them in a trash heap.” She found willing buyers at the Cock ‘N’ Bull who wanted something to make their drink stand out.
3. It put Smirnoff Vodka on the map.
Before the Moscow Mule, Smirnoff was a tiny company owned by an almost penniless Russian ex-pat. But two years after John Martin bought the company in 1939 he got it over to the Cock-N-Bull where it would become the vodka of choice for a properly made mule for decades.
4. The Moscow Mule was almost a casualty of the cold war.
As the U.S./U.S.S.R. stalemate hit its peak intensity with McCarthyism, HUAC and blacklisting in Hollywood, the mule’s birthplace, a rumor begin circulating that Smirnoff was Russian vodka. As a result New York bartenders organized a boycott of the cocktail. Smirnoff, by the way, was never Russian. It originated in Bethel, Connecticut.
5. It had a terrible dance and jingle.
We don’t know who the ad wizards were that came up with this one, but in 1965 the drink was rebranded as the Smirnoff Mule and got its own dance created by Killer Joe Piro and its own song sung by Carmen McRae. We don’t know how many surviving copies of the record are left, but the words were, “Stand stubborn/Stop sudden/Look cool. Turn it on/Take it off/The Smirnoff Mule."
If you want to drink your mules out of the real thing, the new editions of the old mugs are available from Moscow Copper here.