Proposed by: David
Reviewed by: Jonathan
Lately, I’ve been thinking about what makes a drink a drink. Specifically, I’ve been wondering how so many varieties of mules (some call them bucks) can all be all one drink. How can one name fit seemingly infinite visions and revisions?
This week, my wife and I attended a cocktail class taught by Devin Kidner, the founder of Hollow Leg and a master mixologist for the Koval Distillery. Besides having a wonderful time on a roof deck with an awe-inspiring view of the Chicago skyline, we learned a lot about cocktails’ basic components and how they cooperate to create drinks’ distinctive tastes. One of the most illuminating lessons for me was that, once you identify the essential elements of a drink, you can mix, match, and adapt freely and without fear.
Taking that lesson to heart, I tried a couple of variations on the classic Moscow Mule, which traditionally includes lime juice, vodka, and ginger beer, often in nifty copper cups, which—thanks to a birthday gift from my wife—we now own. I can’t distinguish between ginger beer and ginger ale or say what a buck is. Wikipedia will have to help you with the drink’s history, but the web is crowded with many other less than traditional mules. Many restaurants and bars have signature mules. You can change the spirit and the juice and serve it in a glass. You can shake it with ice or make it in the cup. You can garnish it with mint or lemon or nothing. But nearly every mule recipe calls for ginger—ginger beer, ginger ale, ginger syrup, even (I suppose) real grated ginger or ginger candy.
Devin gave me the idea that a sweet liqueur can substitute for simple syrup, and I chose Koval Ginger Liqueur to stand in for the essential mule element. She also suggested, though, that carbonation is never incidental in a well-made mixed drink. It not only cuts the sweetness, but also often balances, enhances, or moderates the spicy and/or hot aspects of a cocktail, which she labeled as their trigeminal effects. You’ll have to ask her what that is, but, as the drink clearly needed something fizzy, I added seltzer for one variation and a combination of seltzer and tonic for another.
Then, just to make the whole enterprise even more complicated, I used bourbon instead of vodka, meaning my cocktail was more accurately a variation of a Kentucky Mule.
A little knowledge can be a powerful thing. Devin compares her mission to the old adage about teaching someone to fish instead of giving them a fish, and it’s liberating to know that a manhattan or a sling or a mojito or a caipirinha can be just the starting point for cocktails in many different guises.
And on that copper cup… while it may not be essential, it does definitely add to the experience of a mule. The metal gets very cold and condensation quickly covers its surface. That’s pretty, but it also creates an enlivening and refreshing sensation similar to drinking spring water from a metal ladle, which—I’m guessing—could be another trigeminal effect. I’m not at all sure about the science, but now that we have those cups, I’ll be looking for other reasons to use them.
Here’s Jonathan’s Review:
There are so many questions that I hope David has answered. What is the difference between ginger ale and ginger beer? Is there a difference in a mule and a buck? Why does this cocktail have its own designated vessel and does it make a difference? What the heck does Moscow have to do with this anyway? To be so perplexing this classic is worth the questions.
My ginger beer of choice was Crabbie’s, a version from the United Kingdom. That really raised the initial question, since up to that point I thought the difference in ginger ale and beer was alcohol. Apparently not since when I asked in the store for ginger beer the helpful clerk responded with “alcoholic or non-alcoholic.”
This is a cocktail blog – I answered “alcoholic.”
The vodka this week was a grain version from Iceland called Reyka. I am still not sure that the brand, or even base material for the mash, makes much difference when it comes to vodka in cocktails, but this one has a really impressive label. If that means anything.
One of the things I cited as a lesson after our first year of this blog is that it makes a difference who you are sharing the drink with. We were very fortunate to be able to meet one of my sisters, her husband and my nephew in Asheville for the weekend and as a result shared the cocktail with them. It was, as I suspected, an affirmation of the lesson and that much better for the sharing.
There were actually two versions of the cocktail, as anyone who has paid attention should know. The first version used the Crabbie’s and I made a second with Blenheim ginger ale. Both drinks showcase the ginger with the ginger beer version more complex and the lime less prominent. The lime stood out in the Blenheim mix and the ginger, while stronger, did not have the background depth of the Crabbie’s. Push come to shove, I liked the Blenheim version better, but probably because the lime stood out and offered a contrast.
Jonathan’s take: Mule or buck, ale or beer, Borgarnes (Iceland) or Moscow, none of it matters when the cocktail is this good.
David’s take: A Mule is well-worth riding, copper cups or no.
Next week (proposed by Jonathan):
Some of our regular tailgaters, my son David and his friend Trevor, asked if they could suggest a drink. Interestingly it is very similar to the Moscow Mule especially since they didn’t know that was what we were trying this week. They have proposed the Dark ‘N Stormy, another mule/buck using spiced rum, typically Gosling’s. I already tried different versions of the Moscow Mule so I imagine this week will offer more chances to mix up the ginger ale and beer to see how that changes things.