Most of the cocktails we write about share a common theme: they came about organically, starting as an unrefined invention of necessity or a bartender’s experiment gone awry, and only later evolved into the drinks we’ve come to know and love. Even the newer recipes (that is, post-WWII) can usually be traced to a single bar, music scene, or cultural moment from which they slowly and naturally spread until they became ubiquitous.

Unlike so many of its cousins, though, the Moscow Mule was pretty much exclusively a product of savvy, persistent marketing. There was no grand lineage from which it derived, no foreign tradition from which it was imported… instead, some guy in LA made it up in 1941, and that was that. It’s not exactly the most mysterious tale, given that we know it more or less end-to-end, but it’s nonetheless a pretty fascinating study in American ingenuity and (mostly) good, old-fashioned luck.

The Vodka Doldrums

The history of the Moscow Mule would be incomplete without a bit of cultural context. Heading into the Second World War, most Americans didn’t know the first thing about vodka. It was wildly unpopular at the time, and a common joke at the expense of whoever ordered it was that “vodka is Russian for ‘horrible.'” Any new vodka cocktail (and there weren’t many) was almost certainly destined for obscurity or, more likely, ridicule at the hands of the drinking public.

That makes it a little easier to understand why, in the late 1930s, G.F. Heublein Brothers’ acquisition of the nascent vodka brand Smirnoff was a risky one. We’re not entirely sure why John G. Martin, president of the Connecticut-based food and spirits distributor, made the purchase in the first place—whether it was confidence in the product, obliviousness to the unpopularity of vodka, or simply the mid-century equivalent of a drunken buy on Amazon—but it was a move that would cement him as one of the luckiest guys in cocktail and spirit history.

A Fortuitous Meeting

Once he was stuck with Smirnoff, though, Martin quickly realized that he had a problem. Despite a few initial marketing attempts, sales were in the toilet, and the product simply wasn’t moving fast enough to be profitable. The official story goes, then, that if it wasn’t for a fateful gathering at New York City’s Chatham Hotel bar in 1941, vodka might never have taken off in the United States at all.

Martin, likely attempting to drink away his frustration, was joined at the bar by two friends: John A. “Jack” Morgan, president of Cock ‘n’ Bull products and owner of the Cock ‘n’ Bull restaurant on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, and Rudolph Kunett, former owner of the rights to Smirnoff and then-president of G.F. Heublein’s vodka division. Jack Morgan, it turned out, was in something of a similar bind with one of his products. He had placed an overzealous order for Cock ‘n’ Bull ginger beer at his bar and couldn’t get rid of the stuff.

In their desperation, Martin, Morgan, and Kunett had an idea. Could two failed products combine to form a successful one? In Jack’s somewhat self-congratulatory telling, the men “were quaffing a slug, nibbling an hors d’oeuvre and shoving toward inventive genius”—in other words, they were hammered enough that this seemed like a fine time to forge a business partnership. Apparently, they mixed up a combination of vodka, ginger beer and lemon on the spot, and declared it the panacea that would save their struggling brands.

A Few Loose Ends

There remains, of course, the matter of the Moscow Mule’s signature copper mug. Unfortunately, nowhere in the story is there a consistent account of who was responsible for contributing them to the drink. There’s occasional mention of an unnamed woman at the meeting who was struggling to sell her handmade mugs, and she’s sometimes referred to as John Martin’s girlfriend, but the trail seems to stop there. Perhaps there was a falling-out and she was scrubbed from the retelling, or she might never have existed at all. It’s one of the few mysteries that still surrounds this cocktail.

Now, as much as the marketers would like you to believe that version of events, there’s a good chance it was completely fabricated after the fact. According to Wes Price, then-head bartender of Morgan’s Cock ‘n’ Bull restaurant in LA, the drink had been on the menu for quite a while before his boss and associates claimed to have invented it. In fact, he had come up with it himself in an attempt to get their absurd stock of ginger beer off the shelves. Like a lot of cocktail history, it’s really a matter of he said, she said, but Price’s account seems a bit more likely, if less tailor-made for an advertising pitch.

The Early Adopter

Regardless of who came up with the recipe, though, John Martin was the one who picked it up and ran with it. He began a bar-to-bar tour of the United States, Smirnoff vodka, Cock ‘n’ Bull ginger beer, and a mountain of copper mugs in hand. Apparently, he had also purchased one of the earliest Polaroid cameras, and put it to use crafting one of the most effective pavement-pounding marketing campaigns in history.

Martin would show up at a bar, entice the bartender to make and try his Moscow Mule (the origins of the name, aside from the obvious reference to vodka’s Russian heritage, remain unclear to this day), and then take a picture of them with his Polaroid. He would leave one copy for the bar to display, and would take the other—along with many more like it—to his next stop to prove his legitimacy. It was a serious case of “all the cool kids are doing it” marketing, and it worked.

From 1947 to 1950, Smirnoff sales tripled, and then doubled again from 1950 to 1951. It was particularly popular in Hollywood, as the Cock ‘n’ Bull had undertaken its own promotion with a captive audience of regulars, and early endorsers included celebrities of all kinds. The Moscow Mule, it seemed, was a hit.

The Red Scare

That was, of course, until a little thing called the Cold War started to really get underway. As the 1950s wore on, American revulsion towards anything even vaguely Russian became the sentiment du jour, and Smirnoff started to flounder. A bartenders union in New York very publicly boycotted the spirit, declaring that they refused to “shove slave labor liquor across the wood in any American saloon.”

The great irony, of course, is that Smirnoff is distilled in the United States. The brand scrambled to distance themselves from any Russian connection, but made little headway, and ended up taking a fairly significant hit to their sales before eventually recovering over the following decades. Unfortunately for the Moscow Mule, though, that period of contraction was enough to force it from the radars of many American drinkers, and it fell into obscurity for years.

It wasn’t until the turn of the 21st century that it started to see a resurgence, riding on the coattails of the craft cocktail boom. But since it’s not quite fancy enough to be an artisanal drink, and not quite simple enough to be a cheap well drink (go into your local dive bar and ask for ginger beer, we dare you), it’s had some trouble finding its place.

With the rise of craft, small-batch soft drink production in recent years, though, it seems to have edged its way up onto some of the more respectable menus out there, and we’re glad it’s settling in. It might not be complicated, but you’d be hard-pressed to find something more refreshing.

This is part of a series on the Moscow Mule, so be sure to check out our pieces on How to Make a Moscow Mule and 15 Must-Have Moscow Mule Variations!

Photos: Vintage Smirnoff ads from

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  • Brad says:

    The vintage ad with the mugs is awesome! I found a different one here: I am trying to collect them and put them up in my home bar in the basement. Very inexpensive accessory for the wall!

  • Hans Gerwitz says:

    It certainly is having no trouble finding its place in Berlin!

    • Will Shenton Will Shenton says:

      That’s very cool! Do they make it any differently in Germany?

      • Hans Gerwitz says:

        Nope. If anything, I have found it is more reliably “classic” in Berlin, down to the copper mug, than in Seattle, Chicago, NYC.

        For NYE I was in Paris and found a bartender who was excited to have one requested. He had not made one before but had “heard it was becoming a big thing.” (His specialty was a White Russian of all things. Never have I seen so much care put into that drink.)

        Can’t say I see that here in Amsterdam. We’re just learning that gin & tonic should be served in the same glass, here.

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