Around midnight one recent Saturday, I found myself standing in line for a drink at Cooper-Young's DKDC, waiting for the bartender's attention so that I could order a Moscow Mule. I gave up most vodka-based cocktails after a high school bonding experience that involved sipping the clear liquor from a hairspray bottle. Yet here I was nearly three decades later, so sweaty that I eschewed my normal gin and tonic to cup my hands around a cold copper mug and let the vodka, ginger beer, and lime juice — the main ingredients in a Mule — course through my small intestine. Never mind that alcohol is a diuretic that actually heats up the body instead of cooling it down — the combination of the cold liquids, aromatic mint, and the insulating effect of the chilly copper mug felt instantly refreshing.
The cocktail, invented 75 years ago by ginger beer purveyor Jack Morgan and Smirnoff distributor John G. Martin, was birthed in Manhattan's Chatham Hotel but found its sea legs at Morgan's Cock 'n Bull restaurant in Los Angeles. Served over cracked ice, the Moscow Mule combined two poor sellers (and utilized an overstock of Russian copper mugs) to create an instant hit at the Cock 'n Bull, which was a celebrity-heavy establishment on the Sunset Strip. Despite a Cold War boycott led by a group of patriotic New York bartenders, the American-born Moscow Mule survived. And in recent years, as ginger beer has benefitted from the resurgence of the craft beer and cider markets, the drink has once again become a mainstay on bar menus.
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Locally, you can find the Moscow Mule on menus all over town, from Beale Street to Overton Square to Collierville. South of Beale makes theirs with Tito's vodka; the varietal Orange Mule at Bar Louie features Absolut Mandarin; while at the Cove, bartenders use vodka, crème de cassis, lime, and soda water to make a Memphis Mule, served in a copper mug for $8.
Karen Carrier, the restaurateur behind DKDC, the Beauty Shop, Mollie Fontaine Lounge, and Another Roadside Attraction catering, says that the popularity of the Moscow Mule, a traditional blend of Tito's, Gosling's Ginger Beer, lime, and mint, has stayed strong over the past few summers.
DKDC bartender Christine Farris says, "When it's 100 degrees outside, and I can drink something that tastes this refreshing, I'd drink it." She attributes the ascendance of the Moscow Mule on Carrier's menus to her boss' acumen when it comes to quality ingredients.
"Karen is always a step ahead of the game. We use good liquors, fresh herbs, and fresh-squeezed juices," Farris says. "Whether you're making one at home or drinking at a bar, the biggest thing that will make a Mule taste better is using fresh-squeezed fruit. Rose's Sweetened Lime Juice makes the drink taste too sweet, which actually reduces the freshness. You also want to use a ginger beer that's very gingery, without too much high fructose corn syrup."
Gosling's ginger beer ranked third out of four on Bon Appétit's rankings, below competitors Barritt's and Fever-Tree. Cock 'n Bull brand ginger beer, which is available at selected Kroger stores and via Amazon.com, didn't make the list. At home last week, I made a Hendrick's Summer Mule, which consists of gin, lime juice, elderflower cordial, muddled cucumber, and ginger beer, garnished with fresh mint.
The botanical flavors of gin add substantially to the taste of a Mule, although, truth be told, this variation had more in common with a Pimm's Cup than a Mule. The cucumber slice added to the after-effects of sipping it. The Summer Mule goes down like a soothing digestive, concocted specifically for Memphians trying to make it through August.
That said, make mine a traditional Moscow. Maybe it's just the mental association, but any cocktail named for a city that fluctuates between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit this month conjures up cooler days ahead.