The REAL Reason Why the Moscow Mule Was Invented and is Now Popular

Twice a month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau pops by Stick A Fork In It to chime in about a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!!

The historical perspective looking back at cocktail history has always fascinated me. It’s one thing to look at how, when and why a cocktail came along. It’s another to reflect on how events going on at the time lent to its creation —- or demise. So it is with the Moscow Mule, a concoction that has come into its own the last few years but now is possibly becoming as pedantic and silly as a Shirley Temple. Now, it’s a perfectly fine drink, I guess, but when the marauding hordes from Huntington Beach or Hemet start ordering them, the end is most likely near.

The common mythology is that the Moscow Mule was invented at the Cock and Bull pub and I’m not saying that’s not the case. What I am saying is that there is an interesting back story to the whole fable. You see, during the decades of the great post-WWII Red Scare, drinking vodka was enough to make most Americans look at you like you were Kruchev slamming his shoe down on the table at a UN meeting while chanting “Death to America!” In fact, a possible follow-up question by The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” could have been “Have ever drank vodka?” In fact, any cocktail book from that era either makes no mention of said spirit or has a mere cursory mention of it buried in the back pages.

In the case of the Moscow Mule, the most probable explanation was its creation was the result of desperation, not genius. You see, back then people didn’t drink much vodka (maybe homeless drunks did) and, alongside all the unused vodka, there was a lot of crappy ginger beer being delivered to bars that wasn’t getting used up.

(A side note: Why did bars order something they couldn’t sell? Strong-arm tactics from their vendors. Want a case of Jack Daniels? Fuck you. Buy two cases of vodka too. Back then the mafia ran almost every aspect of the bar biz and that extended to tactics straight out of Goodfellas).

I have worked with some super-old-time bartenders that swear, in every dive they worked, a musty case of low-alcohol ginger beer shorties was stashed behind the bar somewhere. This was for the early morning drunks to sip on to get rid of the shakes before the real late morning drinking began. It wasn’t used for much else. Also, behind the bar were bottles of vodka that were considered an anathema that wouldn’t move. Now, I’m no marketing genius, but I know what I’d do to get rid of all this unusable product. Invent a cocktail and come up with some schmaltzy marketing ploy.

Now, the copper cup thing is another mystery from years gone by. The popularly accepted version is that the copper cup was a marketing ploy created by John G. Martin in the 1940s. He would travel around and take photos of bartenders holding up the copper cup in order to promote the drink. My venerated bartender buddies (like the legendary Ed Scott) swear that the copper cups came from an even earlier promotion in the 1930’s and there were just a bunch of them lying around when Mr. Martin decided to abscond with the idea.

By the late 50’s the drink burned out, not to be seen again until recent times in its present incarnation. By all accounts the last of the original copper cups were long gone by the mid-60’s. They were, in fact, held with such low regard that-like depression glass-most were lost, destroyed or otherwise disappeared.

So what’s with the revival? I think it’s a by-product of contemporary cocktail culture. Nowadays, most legitimate bars use real ginger beer instead of the Canada Dry crap on the soda gun and (until recently) vodka has been the number one seller behind the bar—now replaced by whiskey. Combine that with the retro-mixology influence and romanticizing of particular drinks and you have the recipe for a repeat visit from the Moscow Mule.

Next time you pick up a book or magazine extolling some elaborate version of a particular concoction’s storied beginnings, keep in mind this cautionary tale — what you hear is oftentimes not what really went down. Or, if it was, there might be a not-so-romantic reason. Some of the ornate tapestries woven about a cocktail’s origin can be as elaborate and fictional as any tome Tolkien ever conceived in that magnificent, nerdy brain of his.

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