Friday, May 31, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Moscow Mule

An anniversary is a time to step back and reappraise. To break with tradition. To venture into new terrain. To listen, finally, to all those requests and complaints.

That’s right. In this, the second year of Cocktail of the Week posts, I am at long last featuring a vodka drink. Stop sending me your emails.

Understand, I’m not one of these people who hates vodka. Like Kingsley Amis, who wrote in Everyday Drinking that the role of vodka “is to replace gin in established gin drinks for the benefit of those rather second-rate persons who don’t like the taste of gin, or indeed that of drink in general.” He said it, folks, I didn’t.

I have no strong feelings about vodka, which is why I seldom drink it. It brings nothing to the party in the terms of taste. (Do not start in about flavored vodkas, I beg of you. You do not want to go down that road with me.) When people ask me to suggest a vodka cocktail, I’ll usually opt for something like the Jasmine, which has a few other elements to do the heavy lifting.

There is one vodka cocktail that I enjoy, because it asks the spirit to provide the kick and lets the remaining ingredients, specifically one, shoulder the burden. That the drink was concocted by a major corporation solely to sell booze doesn’t bother me in the least.

In 1939, the food and beverage giant Heublein purchased the North American rights to Smirnoff vodka for next to nothing. This was at this insistence of company president John Martin and over the objections of Heublein’s board of directors. (Heublein may have scored with brands as varied as A1 Steak Sauce, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Grey Poupon, but they also sold a line of pre-made cocktails like Manhattans and sidecars in cans, so it’s not like the outfit had the Midas touch.) Vodka had always struggled in the U.S., and initially Heublein had difficulty marketing it as well. Ultimately they chose to play to the familiar by rebranding it “white whiskey” and in an ad campaign touted the fact that it had no taste or smell by saying Smirnoff left you breathless. Focus groups deemed this approach more subtle that the original slogan, “Ah, Screw It, Get Hammered At Lunch.”

Success was still some distance off in 1946 when Martin found himself in Los Angeles dining with Jack Morgan, proprietor of the Cock ‘n Bull, the faux-British pub to the stars on the Sunset Strip. (The bar lasted until 1987, making it one of the last of the ‘40s Hollywood hot spots to close its doors.) Martin was saddled with Communist hooch nobody wanted, while Morgan made a strong ginger beer few customers could stomach. What to do, what to do?

Their answer, of course, was to combine them. A buck or a mule is a category of cocktail made with a base spirit, ginger ale or beer, and citrus. Given the Cock ‘n Bull’s Tinseltown ties the vodka buck, rechristened the Moscow Mule, became a hit with movie folk and was consequently written up in fan magazines, which fueled its popularity nationwide. So if you ever wondered who to blame for the ascension of vodka in this country, there’s your answer: Hollywood liberals.

The Martin/Morgan origin story sounds too good to be true. Drink historian Eric Felten says credit for the drink’s creation actually belongs to Cock ‘n Bull bartender Wes Price. His inspiration, according to Felten? “I just wanted to clean out the basement.” Price also claims that the first Moscow Mule ever made was sold to film noir favorite Broderick Crawford, so I’m buying his version of events.

Whenever possible, the Moscow Mule is served in a small copper mug. Why, you may ask? This is my favorite part of the story: because Jack Morgan’s girlfriend had inherited a factory that made them, and she couldn’t unload the things. Why shouldn’t she get well along with Morgan and Martin? Many bars maintain this unnecessary tradition and here in Seattle of late, the mugs have been the cause of a crime wave. I would like my parole officer to note that one of them is not pictured.

Key to this drink is a potent ginger beer. In The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, David A. Embury pushes for Schweppes, an English brand. I’m honoring that request by making mine with Crabbie’s Alcoholic Ginger Beer, a U.K. product with a terrific sharp flavor and a punch of its own. Add a little lime and you have a perfect summer cooler.

The Moscow Mule

2 oz. vodka
4 – 6 oz. ginger beer
½ oz. lime juice

Pour lime juice over ice in a Collins glass or a small copper mug that you probably stole from a reputable bar, in which case you should just turn yourself in to the authorities. Add vodka. Top with ginger beer. Stir. Garnish with a lime wedge.