The Mule (Moscow and Otherwise)

muler?muler?Published: 10/13/14… Republished: 5/31/20

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?

Once, my wife and I attended a cocktail class taught by Devin Kidner, the founder of Hollow Leg and once 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:

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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.

Retake Photos (l to r, Jonathan and David)

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Jonathan’s RE-take: The mule/buck is not only one of the few cocktails I know from memory, it is one that I can remake easily based on preferences of the drinker. For this re-take I started with with an idea from a pre-COVID trip to Curacao back in January. We visited the Curacao distillery at Landhuis Chobolobo. They make a Tamarind Mule with their tamarind liqueur and tequila. I mixed it up a little with Ted Haigh’s recommended Blenheim extra hot ginger ale and mezcal instead of tequila. The taste testers loved the hot ginger, the smoky aspect of the mezcal and the unique flavor of the tamarind. The tequila version was very good too. Ginger, spirit, citrus repeat…

David’s RE-take: As someone who loves ginger ale, any sort of mule is welcome for me. I made mine with Goose Island Ginger Ale in two varieties—tequila, a “Mexican Mule,” and rye, which apparently is a Maryland Mule (though I never knew Maryland was known for its mules). If I had to choose between the two, I might choose Maryland, though that pains me. Perhaps if I’d had some mezcal and tamarind like Jonathan….

Next Time (proposed by David): Jonathan is working on a shrub! I love shrubs. And I love gin. I found a recipe that combines the two ingredients. We will make some adaptations, naturally but this choice offers a bonus—jalapeño. We haven’t had many hot cocktails on this blog, so I’m looking forward to it.

Gold Rush

IMG_1520Proposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

How is it possible? The history of cocktails tells us the first that met that definition and name was created in the early 1800’s. Yet here we are in 2020 and the history of this week’s Gold Rush cocktail, a 3 ingredient mix by the way, is less than 20 years old.

The Bee’s Knees cocktail is more widely known. The lore is that the Bee’s was the result of prohibition era gin being softened with the sweet of honey and the distraction of lemon. The true story it seems is that this gin cocktail traces back to Paris in the late 1920’s. It is attributed to the widow, and adventurer, Margaret Brown. She and her bartender were the first to mix gin (an ample 2 ounces) with honey syrup and lemon (3/4 ounce in most versions). Margaret Brown, by the way, is better known as the Unsinkable Molly Brown – a survivor of the sinking of the Titanic.

The bourbon version of this cocktail, the Gold Rush, did not arrive until the early 2000’s. An investor and bartender, T.J. Siegal, at New York’s Milk & Honey bar created this drink as an alternative to a Whiskey Sour. The honey syrup provides the sweetness and the lemon the acid with bourbon as the perfect foil. As I asked to begin this background – how did it take so long?

The Gold Rush

2 ounces bourbon (don’t skimp and use something you like by itself)
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
3/4 ounce honey syrup (I mixed at a 2:1 honey water ratio)
Shake with ice, strain onto ice in a highball glass and garnish as you like. I used some pineapple sage leaves because I had them.

I made a Gold Rush and a Bee’s Knees since I had the ingredients for both. Just sub gin for the bourbon in the latter and serve in coupe with a twist.

Here’s David’s Review:IMG_1510

Make enough cocktails (and drink enough) and you’re bound to consider the fundamental qualities of a cocktail, like how many ingredients it should have, what proportions, which flavors to complement and/or contrast others, or which seemingly peripheral elements like temperature or drinking vessel suit the drink best. No such basic laws actually exist, of course. No Neoplatonic cocktail sits in another plane of reality serving as the ideal for every iteration. However, for me, one cocktailian truth seems fundamental—cocktails should only be a complicated as they need to be.

Back in the old days when I visited restaurants instead of having them visit me with greasy bags and styrofoam, some involuntary skepticism rose up in me as I read the cocktail menu and found drinks with seven or eight ingredients. Many proved wonderful. The ones that wove multiple flavors without hiding any of them showed amazing skill and tested the limits of my preference for only necessary complexity. Other cocktails, however, just seemed muddied by too many and too varied components.

All of which is a long preamble to saying I liked the Gold Rush. When Jonathan proposed it, I immediately thought about the sore throat cure my father-in-law used to give my wife as a child—it was the sixties—but I really appreciated the clarity and sincerity of this drink. Though I might cut down on the honey simple syrup a little bit, this cocktail fulfills my cocktailian Occam’s Razor especially well.

As if often the case when you reduce the number of ingredients, you need to assure the quality of the Gold Rush’s few parts. But, even with so simple a formula, you have a lot of room for experimentation. I can imagine a different bourbon, honey, or Meyers’ lemon (instead of regular lemons) would make a big difference.

Jonathan’s take: I know this will surprise you – but how did it take so long!

David’s take: Could be a classic (and I’m not sure why it’s not)

Jonathan’s proposal for the next drink: We will return to one of the basics the Mule (Moscow and otherwise). I have a feeling that Mezcal will make an appearance in my version.

The Americano and Negroni

Proposed by: Jonathancamparicropt

Reviewed by: David

Republished… originally published 9/15/2013

Absinthe is purported to have a slight hallucinogenic effect. There was no immediate effect from ingesting it in a Sazerac, but I am going to claim a delayed effect. Somehow I thought I had read about a version of the Cosmopolitan that used gin and Campari. The more savvy cocktailians (maybe we’ll just call them savvyones) know the classic Cosmo is vodka, triple sec, cranberry juice and lime. It might be a stretch to substitute gin and Campari for the vodka and cranberry and call it a Campari Cosmo. I still want to begin to use some of the ingredients that we have acquired and to offer some possible variations though, so my proposal for this week was both the Negroni and Americano.

The Negroni is a drink attributed to Count Camillo Negroni in Florence Italy. Apparently the Americano was not strong enough so the Count suggested replacing soda water with gin. I cannot say that is a suggestion that would come to me naturally, but you only have to look at my review of the Cinquecento, which I found more than a bit too powerful and bitter. After that experience, I read that Campari, as a bitter, is an acquired taste which also factored into my suggestion of two alternatives for this week.

The Americano is in many ways the simpler drink, It is made up of 1 ounce of Campari, 1 ounce of sweet vermouth and club soda. Served in a highball glass it is garnished with a twist of orange. The bitterness of the Campari is really knocked down by the sweetness of the vermouth and dilution of the club soda. It was so much more enjoyable and, like a bitter IPA beer, was great with spicy food.

A Negroni is equal parts (1 ounce) of Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin. It is also served with a twist of orange, on ice in an old fashioned glass. We tried it as an aperitif as it was intended and although it was a strong drink it mellowed as the ice melted. Overall it was complex and enjoyable. The Americano impressed me as a drink that people who like gin and tonic would enjoy as an alternative.

Here’s David’s Review:

Jonathan mentioned that online recipes call each of these drinks “an acquired taste.” As a great acquirer of tastes, that didn’t scare me. Quite the contrary, it inspired me. Black coffee, obscure documentaries, and knowing the minute details of the history of the hammer-throw make you feel special. You get used to justifying what others find strange, and then you begin to take pride in it, and then you start to annoy friends by urging odd things upon them. Later, when they complain, you sigh, “Oh well, maybe it’s an acquired taste.”

Only, I don’t like Campari. It isn’t the bitterness exactly, but the sort of acrid smell and undertone (like licking an aspirin) that turns me off. That, and the syrupy mouth feel. And the lurid, obviously dyed color. I could get used to Campari—you could probably get used to sipping shampoo—but, as we’re only drinking one cocktail a week (or, in this case, two), I’d like to enjoy the main ingredient… which, in case it’s not yet clear, I don’t.

Jonathan is right that, in the Americano, at least other ingredients balance the bitterness. The sweet vermouth is truly sweet. Its vaguely herbal undertone doesn’t add much bitterness—though, like the Campari, a dandelion flavor lurks in it—and the soda lightens the whole drink. I maybe might could possibly enjoy this cocktail… if it weren’t for the Campari, which made the whole concoction taste like, well, a concoction.

Gin is one of my favorite spirits (and, in fact, I love gin and tonic) so it pains me to say I liked the Negroni less. Gin IS medicinal, wonderfully so, but, in combination with the vermouth, and especially the Campari, the drink seemed an unsuccessful attempt to mask some sorcerer’s cure. Cocktails aren’t good for you, and one item that’s sure to make my future essay, “The Education of a Cocktailian,” is that mixed drinks shouldn’t taste like prescriptions.

Okay, I know someone is going to go all Sam-I-Am on me, tell me I’m being unfair to Campari and haven’t given it the chance it deserves. I only know a few Latin phrases, and one is my response: de gustibus non est disputandum or “There’s no disputing about matters of taste.” Maybe some of our dear readers love Campari and feel hurt by my rejection, and sorry. Your taste buds must be built differently than mine. We can’t all like the same things. And some tastes you don’t even like enough to acquire.

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Jonathan’s take: There is a lot to be said for introducing strong, new tastes slowly. The progression from Americano to Negroni was more gradual and made each that much better.

David’s take: Damn you, Campari.

Jonathan’s re-take: My recollection was that I did not care for the Negroni but my take in 2013 was fairly positive. No matter, this time around it was tasty enough that I would consider buying another bottle of Campari.

David’s re-take: Sorry Campari… my wife loves a Negroni, and, since the original post, we compromised by making them with Aperol instead. It seems less like bitter candy. 

Proposal: The next post will be a new cocktail for us – kind of. The Gold Rush is another 3 ingredient cocktail that is a version of a Bee’s Knees with bourbon subbed in for gin. And it’s an excuse to make another simple syrup!