war on the rocks

From Los Angeles, With Love

March 8, 2016

A lawsuit filed in 1947 by four Los Angeles residents claimed $10,000 in damages after witnessing a live “lizard or salamander” crawl out of a bottle at a local pub. The plaintiffs alleged this unexpected event caused violent nausea, prolonged insomnia, and recurring visions in which “mules and lizards … leer at them from the necks of ginger beer bottles.” And so begins the legend of the Moscow Mule.

Like any good origin story, the creation of the Moscow Mule is shrouded in the hazy memories of time, alcohol and ego. Three different versions of the drink’s creation stand out for their plausibility, their interesting characters, and their association with Joseph Stalin, respectively.

The simplest version begins in the 1940s and centers on Wes Price, the head bartender at the Cock ‘n’ Bull Pub in Los Angeles. Owner Jack Morgan lamented to Price that he had a surplus of Cock ‘n’ Bull-branded ginger beer, but no demand from customers. “I was just trying to clean out the basement,” Price recalled to the Wall St. Journal. Perhaps playing off the idea of a Mamie Taylor (whiskey and ginger beer), Price experimented with the ginger beer and included another slow moving inventory item, Smirnoff vodka. Price recalled that the first customer to try the drink was Oscar-winner Broderick Crawford, who loved it. After that, the drink sold like “wildfire.”

A more colorful version of the story centers upon John Gilbert Martin, a third generation booze man. Martin’s grandfather founded the Connecticut-based G.F. Heublein & Bro. in the late 19th century, and Martin took over as president in 1937. A year later, Martin paid roughly $14,000 ($230,000 in today’s money) for the rights to distribute Smirnoff vodka throughout the United States, despite the fact that Smirnoff was only selling 6,000 cases per year at the time.

Martin spent four years trying and failing to sell more vodka, but the golden sunshine of California has a way of revitalizing even the most failed dreams. One day in 1940, John Martin found himself in the Cock ‘n’ Bull, eating appetizers and swapping tales with the owner Jack Morgan. Martin spoke of his sluggish vodka sales, while Morgan mentioned his growing stock of unsellable ginger beer. Martin remembers Morgan’s girlfriend joining them at the table, “a great, big buxom woman” named Osalene Schmitt, whose family owned a copper mine. Realizing that each of them possessed an excess of ginger beer, vodka, or copper, an alcohol-fueled brainstorming session took place. Three distinct problems quickly led to one delicious solution, and the Moscow Mule was born.

Yet John Martin’s memory is not quite the last word on the matter. The Moscow Copper Company of Santa Barbara claims a slightly different version of events on their website. While they agree with the main points of Martin’s retelling, the Moscow Copper Company asserts that the third (and crucial) individual at the bar was not Morgan’s girlfriend, but in fact Mrs. Sophie Berezinski.

In this “Berezinski Version,” Sophie was the daughter of a Russian copper factory owner who created 2,000 copper mugs of his daughter’s own design. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, sales in the Soviet Union were non-existent, so Mrs. Berezinski packed her bags (and mugs) and set off to America. Yet Mrs. Berezinski’s husband was not entirely accommodating of his wife’s collection of copper tankards. According to the website, Max Berezinski threatened to throw out her mugs if she couldn’t find a buyer.

How fortunate for history that Mrs. Berezinski thereafter found herself walking into Jack Morgan’s Cock ‘n’ Bull bar on Sunset Boulevard. Exactly how many of her 2,000 mugs were with her that day is a detail lost to history, but if the Moscow Copper Company’s website is accurate, Sophie Berezinski was the integral third person on the fateful day when the Moscow Mule was created.

Like so many other aspects of this drink’s history, doubt and disbelief creeps into the Berezinski version of the Moscow Mule’s origins. Berezinski’s claim of private ownership of a copper mine and the ability to stamp out 2,000 mugs is highly suspect. Writing in 1925, Joseph Stalin asserted, “we need, finally, to organize our copper foundries … to improve our military industry, because without that they will beat us with their bare hands.” Launching his “revolution from above” in 1927, Stalin quickly nationalized the essential industries and “set goals that were unrealistic — a 250 percent increase in overall industrial development and a 330 percent expansion in heavy industry alone.” When the consequence of a missed quota might involve death or a stay in a distant gulag, it hardly seems the ideal “startup” environment for a budding capitalist with a dream of selling copper drinkware.

Leaving aside the issue of private ownership in the Soviet system, the larger question is whether Martin and Morgan needed an external supplier for the mugs in the first place. As noted by bar historian George Sinclair, the Cock ‘n’ Bull was a British-styled pub and likely “served their beers in copper mugs,” thus having no need for 2,000 improbable Soviet mugs.

Regardless of the particulars, the fact remains that by 1941 the Moscow Mule was alive and kicking, and John Martin demonstrated a brilliant eye for marketing it. Armed with a newfangled Polaroid camera, Martin visited bars all over Los Angeles and displayed pictures of people enjoying Moscow Mules. Martin adroitly played on the universal fear of every business owner: being left behind.

Writing in her Inside Hollywood column in 1942, Edith Gwynn noted the new “craze in the movie colony … called ‘Moscow Mule.’” Though the first printed reference to the cocktail, it would not be the last. Throughout the 1940s, the Moscow Mule lived off a steady diet of Hollywood ink. Ed Sullivan noted in the summer of 1947 that he “never saw so much vodka imbibed as out here. Favorite drink is a Moscow Mule.”

Spurred by the growing popularity of the Moscow Mule, sales of Smirnoff vodka steadily increased until the early 1950s. But like so many others in Hollywood, the Moscow Mule fell victim to the paranoia of the anti-Communist crowd, stoked by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. While Smirnoff distilled its vodka in Connecticut, the Russian name provoked a backlash, including a boycott of the brand by New York City bartenders. Sales declined, and the Moscow Mule faded from the scene.

Yet the cocktail revival of the past 15 years has propelled the Moscow Mule to its greatest relevance since Truman defeated Dewey. From the Bar Deville in Chicago to the Thirsty Crow in Los Angeles, the Mule is found on the menus of the best cocktail bars in the country. A clear indication of the impact of any cultural touchstone is the imitators it spawns. The traditional Moscow Mule recipe is now frequently used as a jumping off point for unexpected riffs, the most famous of which may be the Gin-Gin Mule created by Audrey Saunders of the Pegu Club in SoHo.

While the ancestry of the Moscow Mule is a little cloudy, its legacy remains clear. Along with the Manhattan, the Martini, and the Old Fashioned, the Moscow Mule is a distinctly American cocktail, its name notwithstanding. Though its popularity will ebb and flow, it seems unlikely to ever truly leave the American palate.

With the price of copper currently near a five-year low, take the time to hoist an authentic mug and raise a toast to John Martin and Jack Morgan, to Wes Price and Sophie Berezinski, no matter who actually invented it.

 

Matthew D. Plunkett is a Brooklyn-based writer who prefers an Old Tom Martini to a Moscow Mule, but he isn’t particular. He is currently writing a book exploring the 60-year history of the Boston Whaler.

 

Photo credit: Edsel Little