SO YOU’VE ORDERED a Moscow Mule. That’s a fine idea; it’s a hot day, and you want something refreshing and fizzy, and you hear that copper cup keeps things cold. But in this time of instant gratification, of Amazon Prime and Alibaba and FedEx Overnight, you might have forgotten to wonder at everything that had to happen in world history for that particular drink to be in your hand.
The term “mule” (or “buck,” interchangeably) refers to any cocktail made with ginger beer or ginger ale (alcoholic or not, although this is a matter of debate) and fruit juice (usually citrus). This sounds quotidian; ginger ale is boring now, something your mother gave you for stomach aches, and limes are so ubiquitous that any restaurant will give you one for free.
Some say the mule was invented in New York; others say Los Angeles; others claim it was British officers in the West Indies. Most sources agree that the whole copper-cup thing was pure marketing, a 19th-century gimmick meant to sell gallons of a particular brand of ginger beer. There are also lots of apocryphal etymological guesses about the origins of the equine name, but I personally think it just comes from the idea that ginger gives the drink a kick, making it effectively “buck like a mule,” and therefore either name will do.
But consider the ginger itself: a knobby, peppery rhizome from the Spice Islands imported across the known world (at the time) to the ancient Greeks and Romans, hauled in sweating caravans across deserts and disseminating into every cuisine from Africa to Vikingland. Consider how odd it is that a funky-looking knob of root from the hardest place in the world to reach should have found its way into the bellies of humans from tip to tip of the Old World.
Then there’s the ginger beer, first brewed in the 18th century, when everyone was zipping across the oceans discovering and rediscovering continents and claiming them for their own. Made of sugar from the West Indies and ginger from the East Indies, symbolically, it’s like the equator in a cup.
Finally, to that cup, in which the crystallization of centuries of exploration over land and sea are concentrated, you can add practically any base spirit from anywhere on the planet. Standing in a bar in Seattle, you can fill that cup of equatorial miracle fluid with alcohol from the far reaches of the Earth at whim.
The classic, the one in your hand, is the Moscow Mule, so named because it contains vodka, kept frosty as the taiga by that playful copper cup (one part vodka to two parts ginger beer and a generous squeeze of lime, if you want my recipe). Swap that out for tequila, and you get the Mexican Mule. If you use rum, particularly Gosling’s Rum, it’s a Dark and Stormy. Bourbon makes it a Kentucky Mule; gin makes it a London Mule; scotch makes it a Glasgow Mule (a personal favorite, with a dash of St-Germain, and a not-too-peaty scotch).
A mule is like drinkable diplomacy, the U.N. in a glass, a marvel brought to you by world trade, capitalism, imperialism, war, exploration, and the human tendency to reach out and expand like a slime mold into every crevice of the Earth. However you feel about all of that, the truth remains: The resulting cocktail is delicious.
And one day, when we finally reach Alpha Centauri and colonize an exoplanet or two, whatever booze we concoct up there out of moon dust and space flowers probably will marry perfectly with ginger ale and lime, too. The naming I leave to the tipplers of the future.