Back in the '40s, two guys named John and Jack had a problem: they had vodka and they had ginger beer, but they didn't have a whole lot of customers.
Jack owned a restaurant and sold his own house brand of English-style ginger beer on the side, but nobody was particularly interested in the stuff. John had bought the Smirnoff Company in 1939, but the good people of pre-war America didn't know much about vodka — it was a relatively unpopular spirit back then — so the bottles didn't sell.
Thing is, John had done his research. He hired some people to take a poll of New York's bar patrons, and found out that only half of them actually liked the whiskey that was in nearly every drink at the time — including something called the Mamie Taylor, which had scotch, ginger beer, and the juice from half a lime. It isn't too well known now, but that was one of the biggest drinks around in the early 1900's.
Still, though, nobody was biting when it came to vodka. So one night John and Jack both found themselves at the bar of the Chatham hotel in New York, commiserating about how their drinks wouldn't sell.
A Spark of Inspiration
After a couple rounds, they started to wonder: what if you swapped the Scotch in a Mamie Taylor out for vodka? John poured some of his Smirnoff, Jack topped it off with his ginger beer, and they both added a healthy dose of crushed ice and lime juice. One sip and they knew they had a hit.
Some versions of the story say that there was a third guy at the bar who wanted to get in on the action and sell his stock of copper mugs. Others say that it was just John and Jack, but since Jack's restaurant was an English-style tavern that would've used traditional copper mugs to serve beer, the two guys used those when they were perfecting their mix. In any case, copper mugs became the de facto choice for serving the drink.
Hitting the Road
John packed up his gear and set out, traveling state to state pouring Moscow Mules and convincing bartenders to do the same. Supposedly, he'd snap a Polaroid of the bartender mixing things up with Smirnoff vodka, then show that photo to the next bar, and keep the cycle going until he'd convinced the whole country to try his drink.
By '43, there were newspaper articles from LA to New York talking about how Moscow Mules had taken the country by storm, and the rest is history.
Andrew is Bespoke's editor. He lives, writes, and drinks in New York.
Moscow Mule | Recipe
1 half lime
2 ounces vodka
4 to 6 ounces ginger beer, preferably homemade
Squeeze lime into Collins glass (or copper mug) 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 swizzle stick.