The Moscow Mule Cocktail Was an Influencer Before the Internet

Moscow Mule
Moscow Mule / Photo by Meg Baggott, styling by Dylan Garret

The Moscow Mule is one of the best-known representations of the “buck” family of drinks. These cocktails contain ginger beer, or occasionally ale, plus lemon or lime juice.

Familiar to most by now, the Moscow Mule’s ingredients are vodka, ginger beer, and a splash of lime. The drink is simple, unfussy and easy to make, which has undoubtedly helped to cement its popularity since it debuted in the early 1940s.

What’s interesting about the creation of the Moscow Mule is how it acted as a master class in marketing and promotion, and tapped into an early sense of pre-internet social media, long before the dawn of Instagram, TikTok and influencer culture.

More comprehensive histories of the drink have been written, but the story is said to go like this: In the 1930s in Hartford, Connecticut, a man named John Gilbert Martin obtained the rights to Smirnoff, a fledgling producer that created a spirit, relatively unknown in the U.S. at the time, called vodka. Popular tastes skewed towards gin and whiskey, and no one wanted to buy his product, even after marketing attempts went so far as to advertise it as “Smirnoff White Whiskey: No Smell, No Taste.”

Across the country, Jack Morgan, owner of the Cock ’n Bull bar in Los Angeles, had begun to produce a line of ginger beer. He also had trouble selling it, and soon cases piled up in the bar’s cellar.

A Simple, DIY Ginger Beer Recipe

Finally, continents away, a Russian woman named Sophie Berezinski, daughter of the proprietor of a copper factory called Moscow Copper Co., designed a mug for her father’s company that—you guessed it—the pair couldn’t find buyers for. Berezinski is said to have departed for the U.S. with 2,000 of her copper mugs, in hopes of finding a buyer.

Eventually, the trio found each other at the Cock ’n Bull in 1941, where head bartender Wes Price combined Martin’s vodka with Morgan’s ginger beer cluttering up the basement, added lime, and the Moscow Mule was born. Berezinski’s unconventional vessel created an eye-catching packaging for the drink, flair in mug form.

The pre-Instagram influencer

All that remained was promotion. A revolutionary invention that debuted in the late-1940s, the Polaroid instant camera proved key. Martin acquired one and began to bring it to bars and restaurants, where he would ask bartenders and patrons to pose holding his Moscow Mule cocktails. The photos prominently featured copper mugs and bottles of Smirnoff vodka.

Martin was said to always print two copies of each photo, one for himself, and one to give the subject as a keepsake. He’d managed to tap into humans’ innate desire to show off pictures of themselves to friends, as a means of organic brand promotion more than half a century before the modern internet would turn it into standard operating business.

The gambit was a success. Trendy lounges throughout Los Angeles soon had bartenders posting Polaroids of themselves behind their bars, while patrons shared their own photos with each other. It all contributed to the perception of a cocktail scene awash with copper mugs and bottles of vodka.

The rest is history. And though the Moscow Mule has seen ups and downs in popularity, as any cocktail its age would, the drink still persists—as does the promotional scheme that propelled it into the mainstream.

  • 2 ounces vodka
  • 4 ounces ginger beer
  • ½ lime, cut into 2 wedges

In copper mug filled with ice, add vodka and ginger beer. Squeeze in one lime wedge and drop hull into the drink. Garnish rim with remaining lime wedge.

Published on June 19, 2021