Back when I lived in Pennsylvania's capital city, one of our favorite bars was a place called Harry's. In its heyday, Harry's was the watering hole for politicos and lobbyists, where drinks flowed and deals were made. By the time we found it, a half-century later, it was the only business open in a burned-out and boarded-up landscape. It was also the only place in town you could get a Moscow Mule.
The Moscow Mule: ginger beer, vodka and freshly squeezed lime juice served over crushed ice in a copper cup. The cup was the key. The copper transmitted the cold to the hand and lips better than any glass could, amplifying the bright mix of ginger and lime. In the right light, the metallic reflection gave the cocktail an inviting amber glow. The cups at Harry's had an ancient glow of their own: Squat and round, these artifacts from a long-ago Smirnoff promotion had a patina you could get only with 40 or 50 years of burnishing. On a few, you could still make out where the logo had once been stamped on the side of cup.
The Mule was invented out of frustration, or so the story goes. First concocted in the 1940s by the owner of Smirnoff (who was desperate to find a way to get Americans to buy the Russian spirit) and a Hollywood bottler/restaurateur (who was desperate to make his ginger beer as accepted as ginger ale or root beer), the Moscow Mule became the signature drink at the Cock 'n Bull on the Sunset Strip, where stars frequently had their own copper mugs waiting behind the bar. With its Tinseltown cachet—and aggressive marketing by the distillery—the cocktail became a Cold War-era hit.
It didn't hurt that the drink was damn refreshing. This came in handy when the air conditioner at Harry's failed the last summer it was in business and the owner couldn't afford to repair it. With the door propped open, we sipped our mules and watched police conduct drug stings at the abandoned building across the street as The Ink Spots played "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" on the jukebox. Harry's closed a few weeks later.
The bartender, a guy named Gary, took the copper cups with him to his next job at one of our favorite restaurants, where he continued to mix Mules for the next few years. Some time after I moved to Durham, we heard that Gary had been fired. No one knows what happened to the cups.
I spent the next decade dreaming about the Moscow Mule. Sightings were on par with seeing Elvis at Sheetz. While vodka was now the best-selling spirit in the U.S., ginger beer hadn't become the next ginger ale. Copper cups were no longer standard equipment for most bartenders, and the drink wasn't worth it without the proper hardware. Vintage cups could be found on eBay but went for a pretty penny ($30–$40 each), and bidding wars over sets from the Cock 'n Bull can run into the hundreds of dollars.
After I found a four-pack of ginger beer in a store last summer, I couldn't stop telling my friends about the drink and how it needs the cup. For my birthday, my wife got me this beautiful pair of copper mugs from Spain. They may not be the squat shell casings from Harry's, but they hold twice as much Mule.
6 oz. ginger beer
1 1/2 oz. vodka
Half a lime
Pour the ginger beer and vodka over a generous amount of crushed ice (preferably in a copper cup). Squeeze the lime into the mix and stir. Add lime slice for effect.
This drink can be made without vodka and is still refreshing, albeit without the kick. You can find ginger beer at World Market and other specialty grocery stores.
A friend came up with this variation for a Mediterranean dinner recently. Make the lemonade the night before. If you don't have simple syrup, orange blossom water can be substituted. Add lemon slice for effect.
By Jennifer Collins-Mancour
6 oz. Middle Eastern lemonade (see below)
1 1/2 oz. vodka
1 1/2 teaspoons ginger pepper simple syrup
Middle Eastern lemonade
Juice from 8 lemons
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup fresh mint, finely chopped
8 cups cold water
Ginger Pepper Simple Syrup
2 oz. thinly sliced ginger root
1 1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 cup water
1 1/2 cup sugar
Put all in small saucepan. Cook on medium heat until sugar dissolves completely. Cook on low heat for 40 minutes. Strain and pour into container. Allow to cool completely and refrigerate.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Full metal jacket."