Food & Drink | The Moscow Mule - Cocktail Hour - Apéritif Time
And where to get one in Nice: APÉRITIV 11 Avenue Malhausséna.
See review at the foot of the page.
All the classic cocktails we've looked at recently in these pages have had sexy historic backstories - the swashbuckling Sir Francis Drake and the Mojito, Lady Jeanette Spencer-Churchill and the Manhattan, Henry Ramos with his Gin Fizz, and the rakish Ernest Hemingway involved in just about all the others. But the tale of the Moscow Mule is one of good old red-toothed 20th century capitalism. Having Moscow in the name it has to be Russian, right? The Mule implies its strong and got a kick to it, right? The traditional copper mug suggests it was a stalwart of toilworn Russian miners who would take it down the mines to keep out the bitter Siberian cold, right? Myeh, well, sort of… We'll see.
Ingredients & method
2 pts Vodka, should properly be Smirnoff; a premium one like Smirnoff Black
½ pt Lime juice, freshly squeezed
4 pts Ginger beer. Some recipes say 5 pts but I find this swamps the vodka and the lime.
Sprig of mint & a lime wedge for a garnish
It’s very simple to mix: pour the vodka and lime juice into a glass over ice, and top up with ginger beer. Give it a stir, before serving garnished with a lime wedge and a sprig of mint, for a zesty sniff with every sip.
If you're a bluff old traditionalist like me serve your Moscow Mule in a copper mug, and see it sweat with condensation from the chilled drink inside. But mule mugs can be silver or pewter, and the drink is just as satisfying in a normal highball glass.
It's important to use freshly squeezed lime juice; so much better and purer than bottled. It adds a nice sour punch that beefs up the flavour. One average-sized lime should easily give you enough juice for one drink. Tip within a tip: as with lemons, roll & squeeze the lime before juicing it: this will make it release more juice.
Despite the macho Mule in the name it's not an overly strong drink, thanks to dilution by the large proportion of ginger beer which, despite the name, is not alcoholic. The average Moscow Mule is pretty tame: if you mix a 40% vodka with 4-5 pts ginger beer, then the alcohol content is a very mild 11%. So, generally, think of it as equivalent to a glass of wine.
The story of the Moscow Mule is inextricably linked with that of vodka in the US and in western Europe during the middle and second half of the 20th century - and in practice that meant to begin with only Smirnoff… It is also a heartwarming tale of numerous business blunders and mishaps by a cast of colourful hustlers whose dogged persistence eventually paid off.
Pyotr Arsenjevitch Smirnov founded his vodka distillery in Moscow in 1864, becoming the first in Russia to use commercial newspaper ads, along with charitable contributions to the clergy in an attempt to stifle anti-vodka sermons.
By 1886 Pyotr Smirnov had captured two-thirds of the not inconsiderable Moscow vodka market, plus his product was reportedly a favourite of the Tsar and the royal household. When Pyotr died he was succeeded by his third son Vladimir Petrovich Smirnov and the company continued to thrive, producing more than 4 million cases of vodka a year. But then two bad things happened: in 1904 the Tsar nationalised the Russian vodka industry so Vladimir Smirnov was forced to sell his factory to the state; and in 1917 the Bolsheviks’ October Revolution put the kibosh on business. Anyone or anything too closely associated with the Romanov royal family was now under serious threat from the in-power soviets. So the company and its owner, Vladimir Smirnov, relocated (i.e. fled) first to Turkey, then to Poland, and finally to Paris in 1925, where he cunningly altered the spelling to Smirnoff to put the soviets off the scent. Riiiight.
Unfortunately the 1920’s saw the aging Vladimir struggling against Prohibition in the US (1920-1933) and then the Great Depression, and he simply wasn't able to get enough people to buy enough of his Smirnoff vodka. So, exhausted, he sold the brand to a fellow Russian named Rudolph Kunett, whose family had been suppliers of grain to the Smirnovs in Moscow before the Revolution. Kunett established the first North American Smirnoff distillery in Bethel, Connecticut, in 1933.
But Kunett couldn't make a go of it either, so in 1938 he offloaded it to one John G. Martin of the Heublein Brothers Inc. spirits company of Hartford, Connecticut, for a paltry $14,000 - although his fellow directors thought Martin was mad: weren't Americans traditionally whiskey drinkers who knew nothing of vodka and cared even less? Sales indeed proved sluggish. Heublein initially marketed the drink as “White Whiskey” after a mix-up with the labels - but Martin did (a rare flash of acumen in this story) coin the fabulous slogan:
It leaves you breathless
… which cleverly alludes to the (improbable) notion that your boss and/or spouse won't smell it on your breath after you've knocked back a couple.
Sales stubbornly refused to take off however, for understandable reasons: in the early 1940’s Russian vodka was about as popular in the US as Japanese sushi or German sauerkraut. One day in 1946, though, a disconsolate John Martin was sipping a drink at the bar of the Cock ‘n’ Bull restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and got chatting to the guv’nor, Jack Morgan, who was moaning about having bought a shed-load of ginger beer that he couldn't shift. So, with nothing better to do, they mixed some of John’s vodka with some of Jack’s ginger beer… They thought it needed a squeeze of lime juice. Not a bad drink they reckoned. Morgan’s girlfriend, Ozeline Schmidt (good name), had recently inherited her family’s copper mine and had a lot of copper sheeting lying around earning nothing, so they thought let's market this drink in mugs made from that copper - that'll differentiate it from other drinks sold in glasses. To begin with they called it the “Little Moscow” which perhaps explains why it still didn't take off. Then, after only a few cases of Smirnoff had been shifted thanks to this embryo cocktail, they had another moment of clarity and changed the name to “Moscow Mule” which, as well as having the catchy alliteration of the two M’s, further suggested it had an alcoholic kick to it and hinted at some spurious European heritage.
Shortly after that the pair got hold of one of the early Polaroid cameras and with it took pictures of bartenders posing with a bottle of Smirnoff and a copper mug of Moscow Mule. They took two photos each time: leaving one with the bartender for putting on display and taking the other on to the next bar and potential client to show them what a winner they were missing out on. And it worked. The Mule became a smash hit in Hollywood with sales of Smirnoff tripling by the end of the decade - helped in no small part by the Cock ‘n Bull's ego-boosting personally engraved mugs: A-list Hollywood stars had their very own copper mug waiting for them behind the bar when they came in. Actors like Broderick Crawford and Greer Garson became big fans.
The vodka revolution had finally begun. By October 1943 the Nevada State Journal had been able to report that the Moscow Mule's popularity was
And in 1948 the New York Herald carried an article by a Clementine Paddleford (another good name) in which she wrote
Mind you, we shouldn't sneer at John Martin’s and Jack Morgan's marketing efforts since launching a whole new spirit category back in the war-torn middle of the 20th century was no mean undertaking. These days it's hard to imagine a bar not offering vodka, but in the West until about 1940 it was a drink known only to Russian and East European emigrés. The 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book only mentions two vodka cocktails out of a total of over 800 drinks.
In 1941 John Martin - born in Coventry and with a degree from Cambridge University - was conscripted into the US Army and initially served on the War Production Board. Mule-wise everything was put on hold for the duration. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and was decorated with the Bronze Star, the Legion of Merit and the French Croix de Guerre. That's why the Moscow Mule story doesn't start up again until 1946. Once they saw the success of Smirnoff vodka carried on the back of the Moscow Mule their thoughts turned to using and creating other cocktails that could be similarly employed as marketing tools… The Bloody Mary already existed and was press ganged into service; they invented the Bullshot (a savoury one with vodka & beef stock) and the Screwdriver (vodka & orange juice). Nowadays it is standard marketing practice for the drinks company to deploy an appetizing menu of cocktails to promote their newest liquor product: to communicate the product’s identity, it's brand image, its core values, and so on. But 80 years ago - with the Second World War raging on across the globe and widespread economic hardship - it was very hard for a new spirit to gain a foothold in the market dominated by familiar tried and tested drinks and brands. John Martin of Coventry and Heublein Inc. had started a cocktail craze and almost singlehandedly popularised vodka in North America.
Scholars argue over whether it was Leonardo da Jobs or Steve Vinci who first said “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” but, whoever it was, it's a great adage and they undoubtedly had the Moscow Mule in mind (not Leonardo’s iPod or Steve’s siege engine) because this mix is spectacular in its simplicity while having a snappy spicy flavour that is unique, refreshing and invigorating. I'm going to mix one right now...
Use different liquors and the name changes appropriately: for example, if bourbon is used instead of vodka, the drink is commonly called a Kentucky Mule. Likewise, if gin is used with some muddled mint leaves, it’s a Gin-Gin Mule ; if tequila is used, it’s a Mexican Mule ; if rum is used, it’s a Jamaican Mule or a Cuban Mule… You get the drift. Only rule: don't mess with the ginger beer.
The Aussie Mule : Now Australia is not a country that features large in cocktail heritage terms, but if Australian Bundaberg rum is used instead of vodka it's called an Aussie Mule.
The town of Bundaberg is at the centre of a sugar cane producing region north of Brisbane on the Gold Coast (northwest of the country), and Bundaberg rum came about because in the late 19th century the local sugar mills had a problem with what to do with the waste molasses after the sugar was extracted: it was heavy, difficult to transport and the costs of converting it to stock feed were simply not worth the effort. So sugar men’s avaricious minds began to apply themselves to what could be made from distilling it… Thus on 1st August 1885 the Bundaberg Distilling Company came into existence: a joint venture involving all the major sugar barons in the area, and it's still going today although, inevitably, it now belongs to the global drinks giant Diageo.
The Baden-Powell Mule : A great favourite with Akela on Scouts’ camping trips. Put 2 pts vodka, 1 pt Camp Coffee and 1 pt Kahlúa coffee liqueur into a shaker with ice, shake, strain into a rocks glass and top up with ginger beer. Garnish with a strip of fresh ginger and a lime wheel. With a nod to the Black Russian cocktail created by Gustave Tops, a barman at the Hotel Metropole in Brussels, in the late 1940s.
The Dark ‘n Stormy : This version hails from Bermuda where, instead of vodka, it is made with the local dark rum called Gosling’s Black Seal, plus the usual lime juice and ginger beer. For heaven's sake don't even think about doing it with another dark rum because, if you do, the Gosling’s people will get stroppy and quite possibly sue you! In the early 1990’s Gosling’s took the audacious step of copyrighting the Dark ‘n Stormy cocktail and stipulating that it may only be made with their Black Seal. Lest you should think it's just a publicity stunt, the guv’nor - Malcolm Gosling Jr - declared
In Nice The Moscow Mule isn't exactly a Mediterranean cocktail and you won't find ginger beer behind many bars in this city. So I recommend you get the ingredients from this excellent speciality wines & spirits shop: APÉRITIV at 11 avenue Malhausséna, between the railway line and the justly lauded Libération street market… and make your own Moscow Mule.
The staff are knowledgeable, friendly, speak English and are happy to guide you to gems here that you won’t find elsewhere. They tend not to stock the run-of-the-mill brands you’ll find in supermarkets, partly because their emphasis is on quality and originality, not price. In addition to a well chosen selection of French wines - many small family-run domaines, some organic - they stock a broad and equally well chosen range of spirits: some rare & niche like several different vodkas from Russia, Poland, Ukraine, “Ketel One” from Holland and “Pyla” from the west coast of France; an astonishing selection of whiskies and whiskeys; gins & rums; vermouths & liqueurs, bitters, bottled beers & mixers… And so many apéritif snacks & nibboles, charcuteries & cheeses, jars of conserves & fish, breads grissini & biscuits… that you probably won't need an actual meal after the apéritifs! Plus they stock Fever Tree ginger beer!
APÉRITIV 11 avenue Malhausséna, 06000 Nice
Tel. 04 89 92 06 37
...Plus they have a second shop near the Port on the southeast side of Nice:
4 rue de Cassini,
Tel. 04 83 55 37 09
Next week : We return to Europe, classy old Europe, for a ritzy peachy Bellini in Venice. Join us for another drink.
Next Week on Chrystal..
Read More by David Prince:
Please drink responsibly. Consommez avec modération.
Disclaimer: This article is not for commercial ends and no gratuities were asked for or received from any products or companies mentioned herein. Chrystal 2019