By George Sinclair.
The usual story of the Moscow Mule is that one guy, who owned the rights to Smirnoff vodka (John Gilbert Martin) and this other guy who owned a restaurant and had a side-business in making Ginger beer (John "Jack" Morgan) got together and combined their products, which apparently weren't selling very well individually, to create the Moscow Mule. Some versions of the story throw in a third person, usually Jack Morgan's girlfriend, who also had some items she needed to shift, copper mugs to be exact.
John Gilbert Martin became the president of G. F. Heublein & Bro. upon the death of his grandfather, the founder of the company, Gilbert F. Heublein in 1937. In 1939, Martin was responsible for the purchase of the Smirnoff company; he paid Rudolph Kunnet $14,000 for the company, while keeping Kunnet on as the President of the Pierre Smirnoff company.
John "Jack" Morgan was the owner of the Cock N' Bull tavern in Hollywood, as well as being the President of "Cock N' Bull" products which produced the original ginger beer used in the Moscow Mule.
The first known mention of the Moscow Mule is from the "Inside Hollywood" syndicated newspaper column, penned by Eith Gwynn, the date was the 27th of December 1942, and goes like this:
"There is a new drink that is a craze in the movie colony now. It is called "Moscow Mule." Recipe: equal parts Vodka, lime juice and ginger beer!..."
And so the first, known, reference to the Moscow Mule has most of the elements we would hope for in a first citation; all the ingredients and a reference to where it was popular (Hollywood). The only negatives are the lack of a mention for the copper mug, and the unbalanced recipe cited; Equal parts would render this drink too sour, and not very pleasant at all. One would assume that the author was passing on secondary information.
Now, the reason that I mention the lack of a copper mug in the recipe above is that I feel that it may not have been an original feature of the drink, it may just have been attached to the Moscow Mule legend after the fact. While it is true that mentions of the drink being served in a mug come from as early as 1945, it is not until 1948 that the material they were comprised of was mentioned as being that of copper.
Another interesting tid-bit about the copper mug is that the supposed birthplace of the Moscow Mule, the Cock N' Bull in Hollywood, was an English style tavern; and what did they serve their draught beer in? why copper mugs of course. And yes, there is evidence that the Cock N' Bull served their beers in copper mugs, so if they already were using copper mugs, would it be any stretch of the imagination to suppose that they used the same copper mugs for the Moscow Mule also. Modern cocktail bars use their beer glasses for mixed drinks all the time.
There is another claim that the drink originates specifically from 1941, this story was featured in the New York Herald Tribune, of 28th July 1948:
"The mule was born in Manhattan but "stalled" on the West Coast for the duration. The birthplace of "Little Moscow" was in New York's Chatham Hotel. That was back in 1941 when the first carload of Jack Morgan's Cock 'n' Bull ginger beer was railing over the plains to give New Yorkers a happy surprise. Here was ginger beer in crockery bottles tasting exactly like that of old England."
Now, one asks, is all of this true? Well maybe it is and maybe it isn't. But it is 6-7 years after the fact.
Some people might think that mixing vodka into ginger beer is not that exciting, and they would be right, but is it original? Other spirits had already taken their turn being mixed with ginger beer, one such spirit was Scotch Whisky; this ginger beer and whisky drink was named a "Mamie Taylor", after the famous opera singer. While the Mamie Taylor might be virtually unknown today, in its time (1900-1940) it was very well known; featured in newspapers no less. The Mamie Taylor is not just similar to the Moscow Mule, disregarding the alcoholic spirit used for one moment, it is exactly the same. The Mamie Taylor was more than just Scotch Whisky and Ginger Beer, it also included the juice from half a lime, which is exactly what a Moscow Mule includes.
A piece of circumstantial evidence that might help sway you to my way of thinking, regarding the vodka-isation of the Mamie Taylor, is the fact that during the initial marketing of Smirnoff Vodka in the US, by the Heublein company, it was marketed as "Smirnoff White Whiskey. No Taste. No Smell.".
Is it really that difficult to take an existing mixed drink recipe and straight swap the main alcoholic spirit for another one? I do not think so. Scotch whisky swapped for white whiskey.
John Gilbert Martin was not a brash man, he did his research:
Van Wert Times Bulletin, 22nd November 1955.
"I had a public pulse company sound out 14,000 hard drinkers in New York and they came up with the fact that only 7,000 of them like the taste of whisky"
So if half of the drinkers didn't actually like the taste of booze, then surely they would love a booze that doesn't taste of anything in particular when mixed? And he was right.