An East Coast vs. West Coast battle we're ready to settle.

The Moscow Mule’s most famous component isn’t an ingredient, it’s the copper mug that traditionally holds the simple cocktail of vodka, ginger beer, and lime. It’s the mug’s burnished sheen that set the drink apart in the early days of the cocktail revival when vodka-based drinks were considered passé. 

The mug is the very reason the Moscow Mule exists in the first place. Where this began is up for debate, however. 

While some people trace the post-Prohibition cocktail’s origins to Los Angeles, others insist the drink was created in New York City.  

Related: The Best Moscow Mule Mugs, According to Bartenders

“It kind of comes off as a Biggie vs. Tupac, East Coast vs. West Coast kind of argument,” says Gina Hoover, bartender and consultant for CURE in New Orleans. “But I’m not surprised at all why the argument exists. If you ask an American to name five drinks, 90% will probably name the Moscow Mule as one of the five,” she says. “If you’re a city, and a drink has that kind of power, you’d naturally want to take credit for it.”

There are shared traits to each city’s tale. Both pin the drink’s creation to 1941, a relatively modern date compared to other cocktails with convoluted beginnings. They also stake claim to some of the same players, including a struggling-at-the-time vodka brand that’s now a household name. The theories part ways from here.

New York: Three guys walk into a bar…

According to the New York theory, the Moscow Mule stems from Midtown Manhattan’s Chatham Hotel. 

A Los Angeles-based beverage executive named John “Jack” Morgan was in town to promote his own Cock ‘n’ Bull ginger beer, a product that shared a name with the Hollywood bar he also operated. 

He was hanging out with a couple of industry folks — John Martin, president of the now-defunct G.F. Heublein & Brothers distillery and distributor, and Rudolph Kunett, president of Hublein’s vodka division, Smirnoff. After a couple of drinks, the trio wondered what would happen if they combined vodka, ginger beer, and a squeeze of lime juice. Deliciousness ensued.

They named their creation the Moscow Mule. Shortly thereafter, they purchased 500 copper mugs embossed with the phrase “Little Moscow.”

Los Angeles: Pick one

There are two Los Angeles origin stories to consider. 

Morgan and Martin show up as in the first account. Instead of Kunett, they’re joined by Sophie Berezinski, a Russian woman living in Los Angeles, struggling to find buyers for the 2,000 solid copper mugs she designed. 

The story goes that one day, she stumbled upon the Cock ‘n Bull bar, where Morgan and Martin were hanging out and trying to figure out how to move their ginger beer and vodka, respectively. The trio met, brainstormed, and the drink was born. 

"“I just wanted to clean out the basement. I was trying to get rid of a lot of dead stock. It caught on like wildfire.” — Wes Price, head bartender, Cock ‘n’ Bull"

The second theory may be more logical as it comes directly from Cock ‘n’ Bull’s head bartender, Wes Price, and may be a familiar tactic to anyone who’s had experience running a bar. 

In a story published in the Wall Street Journal in 2007, this new theory arose with a quote from Price claiming that he had invented the drink to try to clear ginger beer bottles out of the Cock ‘n’ Bull’s basement. 

“I just wanted to clean out the basement,” said Price. “I was trying to get rid of a lot of dead stock. It caught on like wildfire.”

While this comes close to being proof, it’s still just a claim with nothing concrete to back it up.

Which one’s right?

The drink first showed up in print in 1942, when Inside Hollywood gossip columnist Edith Gwynn mentioned the Moscow Mule as the “craze in the movie colony.”  

An account of the Moscow Mule’s New York origin story from influential food writer Clementine Paddleford would appear in the New York Herald Tribune in 1948. However, Paddleford’s piece mentions a quote from Morgan and references how Los Angeles kept the drink alive after the drink stalled. It’s plausible that Gwynn’s proclamation could be about the drink’s resuscitation instead of its creation.  

Such messiness is expected when it comes to old-school drinks. 

“It’s the same with pretty much any older cocktail,” says Brynn Smith, bar director for Bar Next Door in West Hollywood. “You’re never going to find anything that’s the equivalent of someone going ‘Hear ye, hear ye, here’s the origin story.’”

"“When you look at the style of the Moscow Mule, it makes no sense that it would originate in New York. A story about the creation of a drink with vodka, ginger beer, and lime fits much better in Los Angeles.” — Brynn Smith, bar director, Bar Next Door"

While the drink’s beginnings are technically up for debate, Los Angeles still has a much better claim to the Moscow Mule’s origin story. This is largely due to the drink itself, which has more in common with the fruity, refreshing drinks of Los Angeles' then-fledgling tiki bar scene than the spirit-forward cocktails typically created in the Big Apple.  

“When you look at the style of the Moscow Mule, it makes no sense that it would originate in New York,” Smith says. “A story about the creation of a drink with vodka, ginger beer, and lime fits much better in Los Angeles.” (It should be noted that Bar Next Door is across the street from where Morgan’s Cock & Bull once stood.)

Of course, the Moscow Mule’s refreshing deliciousness provides the legs needed for the debate to continue. 

This brings the conversation back to the copper mug. Its ability to keep a drink cold longer than glass made it an essential part of the drink for decades. These days, modern techniques like using better quality ice and chilled ingredients make the drink less dependent on the mugs. Bar Next Door, for example, serves their Mules in a glass. Still, there is respect for the mug’s role in the drink’s rise to prominence.  

“Overall, the mug these days is a show pony,” says Hoover. “But historically, it’s the reason the drink works.”

That’s true whether the drink originated on the West or the East Coast. But it was likely the West Coast. Sorry, New York.

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2024-06-22T18:35:27Z dg43tfdfdgfd