Americans may have invented bourbon, but when it comes to booze, we’re more likely to reach for vodka than whiskey. Smirnoff is the most popular spirit in the United States, with retail sales of $315 million in 2014. We have the Moscow mule to thank for the clear liquor’s popularity.
Back in the 1940s, few Americans drank vodka. The makers of Smirnoff were intent on cracking the U.S. market, but weren’t sure how to do it until a fortuitous meeting between John Martin, a Smirnoff executive, and Jack Morgan, a bartender at the Cock ‘n’ Bull restaurant in Los Angeles.
Martin had a lot of vodka he wanted to sell. Morgan was sitting on a supply of ginger beer that no one wanted to drink. And Morgan’s girlfriend had a bunch of copper mugs she couldn’t find a buyer for. Martin explains what happened next in this video.
Thus out of desperation, the Moscow mule – a combination of vodka, ginger beer, and a squeeze of lime, served in a distinctive copper mug – was born. Smirnoff poured a lot of energy into promoting the new cocktail. Martin traveled around the country, snapping photos of bartenders with the distinctive copper mug and a bottle of vodka. Woody Allen was even enlisted to promote the drink.
The marketing ploy worked. The Moscow mule – and sales of Smirnoff — took off. Then the Red Scare happened. Despite being an all-American invention, the association with communist Russia helped to sink the Moscow mule’s popularity. U.S.-made Smirnoff weathered the crisis, though, and vodka earned a permanent place in people’s liquor cabinets.
Now, with the cocktail boom in full swing, people have rediscovered the drink that made vodka famous. (The Instagram-worthy mug a Moscow mule is typically served might also have something to do with its resurgence). And unlike some fussy retro cocktails, the Moscow mule is refreshing in its simplicity. You don’t need to track down obscure liqueurs or spend time muddling herbs. To craft the perfect Moscow mule, all you need is three easy-to-find ingredients. Combine them in a glass over ice, stir, and serve. And while a copper mug is nice, it’s not absolutely necessary; a Collins glass will do just fine.
This Moscow mule recipe from Epicurious is adapted from a recipe by cocktail expert Dave Wondrich.
- ½ a lime
- 2 ounces vodka
- 4 to 6 ounces ginger beer, preferably Cock’n Bull or D&G Old Jamaica brands
Directions: Squeeze lime into copper mug or Collins glass and drop in half lime. Add 2 or 3 large ice cubes, then pour in the vodka and fill with cold ginger beer. Serve with a stirring rod.
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