Moscow Mules in Corvallis

By Alicia James

The beach balls have been deflated and the students are returning to campus now. One thing is clear to all: Moscow Mules were the cocktail of summer 2014, at least according to food and drink pundits. The Mule is a simple drink; vodka, ginger beer, and lime juice on the rocks. But d­ispatch any hope that cocktail trends have returned to sanity though. Mules are supposed to be served in copper mugs, preferably rustic ones, which raises many questions. Where the heck do you get copper mugs? Is it even worth the quest and expense? And wasn’t there a House episode about copper poisoning? Armed with my camera and sensible walking shoes, I set off for downtown Corvallis on a field expedition to find alternatives and talk to bartenders about Moscow Mules.

Skepticism at Downward Dog

grown up snocone @ Downward Dog

Grown Up Sno-Cone at Downward Dog

When asked about the Moscow Mule, Zack Wilson, bar manager at Downward Dog, wearily shook his head. “Lime juice and alcohol in a copper mug?” said Wilson. “It doesn’t taste good.”

Wilson is referring to the fact that copper reacts to acid. Citric acid in limejuice won’t cause a face full of smoke, but it will make the drink taste like pennies and I stopped eating loose change when I was two. Copper is also lousy insulation, so it won’t even keep your mule cold very well.

As an alternative, Wilson recommends Downward Dog’s Adult Snowcone. Hand-shaved ice is piled into an old school paper cone and doused in whiskey, lemon juice, and honey. If whiskey isn’t your preferred brain freeze flavor, you can choose any combination from the bar’s extensive house cocktail list. Wilson highly suggests the Damn Siam, a play on Thai iced tea, for particularly muggy afternoons by the river.

Acceptance at Crowbar

ruby slipper @ crowbar

Ruby Slipper at Crow Bar

Seth Waddell, bar manager at Crowbar, remained neutral about this summer’s drunken darling. “We do mules,” he quietly mused. “We have the copper mugs too.”

Waddell prepped fresh herbs for the bartender’s mise en place while listing other perennial favorites. As it turns out, Waddell is much more enthusiastic about seasonal flavors than rustic mugs. The Smokin’ Crow is a heat-forward favorite of jalapeno and pineapple infused vodka with black pepper and muddled lime mixed with orange and pineapple juice. However, the Ruby Slipper – rhubarb and strawberry infused gin muddled with basil and mixed with strawberry puree and tonic water – held court on the rooftop this year. Served tall and cold, it tastes like oblivion… sweet, sweet oblivion.

Moscow Mule at Sky High Brewing

el burro @ skyhigh

El Burro at Sky High

Vodka and I haven’t talked since 1995, when she unceremoniously exhumed the contents of my stomach for all to see in a pool hall parking lot over a disagreement about Janis Joplin.

I was willing to take one for science.

Thankfully, Sky High Brewing offers variations on the mule theme such as Dublin Donkey (Jameson whiskey), Fine Arse (Burnett’s gin), and El Burro (Sauza tequila). I opted for the latter. When my drink arrived, the icy mug certainly convinced my eye that refreshment was at hand. The first sip was tasty; nicely effervescent, balanced sweet and sour. I took another sip and that’s when the metallic je ne sais quois kicked in. Despite the perfect summer weather and an order of chicken tacos, I couldn’t finish.

Curious to find out exactly why the Moscow Mule was so popular, I summoned the gods of Google while waiting for my check. Urban legend has it that a 1940’s marketing campaign birthed the drink. Jack Martin, president of G.F. Heublein & Brothers, an East Coast food and spirits importer best known for introducing A-1 Steak Sauce, purchased Smirnoff distillery at time when vodka was too highfalutin, not to mention too Communist, for most Americans. He collaborated with Jack Morgan, owner of Hollywood’s Cock’n’Bull Pub, on ways to raise interest in the spirit. Morgan is said to have accidentally received a shipment of copper mugs that he couldn’t return. Once the recipe was set, Morgan added a touch of exclusivity by engraving the names of his celebrity clientele onto the prominently displayed mugs, which can still be found on eBay with bids starting at $140.

So what’s the lesson we can take away from all this? Order something else. The copper mug won’t poison you, but the penny taste in your mule is actually paranormal residue from restless souls conned into drinking something awful by the promise of Hollywood glamour.