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Elemental allure

Stylish copper mugs contribute to draw of Moscow mule

Moscow mules are having a moment.

The invigorating combination of vodka, ginger beer and lime – served over ice in signature, handsomely hip copper mugs – has been enjoying renewed popularity. But summer is really the perfect season to celebrate the easy-to-make vintage beverage, garnished with fresh mint leaves and a sense of history.

“They’re very refreshing,” said Coreena Tobey, a bartender at Saranac Public House in downtown Spokane. “And, they go down very easily.”

The post-Prohibition libation made a comeback circa 2006, with the return of classic, handcrafted cocktails. But it’s only been within the last year or so that they’ve become one of the most-requested cocktails at establishments in and around Spokane.

Sweet but not cloying with a kick of spicy ginger and notes of bright lime, Moscow mules are delicious no matter the vessel in which they are served. Highball glasses work just fine. At Boots Bakery and Lounge in downtown Spokane, bartenders use stemless wine glasses.

But, for some reason, they do seem to taste better when they arrive in those distinctive, shiny mugs.

Does the mug make the mule? Or does the mule make the mug?

“The mug makes the drink for sure,” said Jordan Earnest, a bartender at Boots. “It’s totally coming back. I don’t know why. A lot of people are just super-stoked on the copper mug. I think that’s what creates the allure, to be honest. It’s aesthetic appeal.”

It’s also not his favorite: “It’s a good drink. In my opinion, it’s not a great drink.”

Earnest is more of a tequila man, preferring a Paloma, Spanish for “dove.” The cocktail is made with grapefruit-flavored soda or freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, tequila and lime and is served on the rocks with a salted rim.

“That’s my vibe,” said Earnest, noting Boots makes its mules with ginger beer made in house from scratch.

“It’s a fairly basic cocktail,” said Johnny Dandurand, another Boots bartender. “There isn’t any ingredient that’s hard to come by. I would point to the copper mug as the culprit. I would say that adds some kitschiness to it and lends itself to their popularity.”

Tobey at Saranac agreed: “The mug gives it that extra something special.”

Don’t let the name fool you; Moscow mules are distinctively American. Different sources say the cocktail was invented in 1939 or 1941. But most put its birthplace at the Cock’n Bull on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.

The drink’s first known mention in the press is believed to be a Dec. 27, 1942, syndicated newspaper column called “Inside Hollywood,” which reported, “There is a new drink that is a craze in the movie colony now. It is called ‘Moscow Mule.’ ”

Popular through the 1960s, Moscow mules were – and still are – one of the most famous vodka-based beverages. In fact, they helped popularize vodka in America. Before the invention of the now-classic cocktail, vodka was a relatively unknown spirit outside of Russia, whose capital inspired the drink’s name.

The moniker led to some controversy in the early 1950s, when vodka – and Moscow mules in particular – were the target of anti-Soviet sentiment.

Variations of the effervescent cocktail, also called a buck, include rum, gin, whiskey, scotch or bourbon.

The Blind Buck, which opened last summer in downtown, takes its name – at least in part – from the beverage.

The Blind Buck’s best-selling cocktails are its mules, known as “Pack Animals.” House specialties include the classic Moscow mule as well as the Unicorn, made with flavored vodka; the Jenny, made with gin; and the Donkey, made with whiskey.

Those cool copper cups they come in aren’t cheap. Trademark Moscow mule mugs cost about $20 – or more – apiece. A set of two on the Williams-Sonoma website sells for $59.95, for example.

Customers like the mugs perhaps a little too much. Some have been known to spirit away the pricey cups at rates that have prompted some establishments to require a deposit or to hold onto a credit card or driver’s license as insurance against theft. Others only serve the traditional mugs at the bar, where bartenders can keep an eye on them, as opposed to spread-out dining rooms.

Spokane-area bartenders are aware of the trend, which particularly is a problem in larger cities like Seattle and Los Angeles.

Still, “It happens here, too,” Tobey said. “We try to keep an eye on them so they don’t walk out the door. But we’ve had to replenish them.”

Saranac put its $8 Moscow mules on the menu last summer, due to popular demand. The bar uses Gosling’s Ginger Beer, New Amsterdam Vodka, muddled limes and no garnish.

“They’re huge,” said owner Eric Johnsen. “We were getting a lot of requests for them, even over the winter.”

Throughout the last year, he’s had to order new copper mugs four times. He’s lost about 50 or 60 of them due to mug-lifting in the last 12 months.

“Isn’t that awful?” Tobey said. “People ask, ‘Do you have them? Can we take them?’ That’s kind of a red flag.”