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Moscow Mules are Having a Moment

In the fall, when Water & Wall was readying to open in Arlington, bar manager Nick Seo grappled with which cocktails to include on the menu. His good friend Jeanette suggested he consider her long-time favorite mixed drink, a Moscow Mule.

Seo's reaction: "What's that?"

So Jeanette took her buddy to Bourbon Steak at the Four Seasons in Georgetown to sample the vodka-based spirit. Seo says he was sold on its simplicity and added it to the drink menu with a special name, Jeanette & The Mule. Ever since it's been the No. 1 mixed drink offered, by far. "Some places consider (Moscow Mules) to be overrated," he says. "But, at the end of the day, when people come in that are not familiar with craft cocktails, it's the one we suggest."

Accessibility is part of the reason the Mule is becoming the drink of the summer, according to a number of bartenders Eater spoke to about the drink. Even beyond the D.C. region it's enjoying unbelievable popularity.

From an ingredient standpoint, a Moscow Mule is the opposite of complex, consisting of vodka, ginger beer and lime juice. Mixologists, at times, tinker with those basic trio of components and add in extra elements. Yet they are the standard Mule musts.

Legend has it that the drink was created in the 1940s when two businessmen, one selling vodka and the other ginger beer, couldn't move their products. They sat down together at the Hollywood restaurant The Cock 'n' Bull, owned by the man who sold the ginger beer, and, while commiserating, combined vodka and ginger beer, which, with lime juice, became a Moscow Mule.

The other signature of a Mule is how it's served — in a copper mug that's easily recognizable and, in some pubs and nightclubs, readily stolen by patrons. Just a few weeks ago, the Marriott Marquis saw a whopping 400 mini-Mule cups stolen from the opening of the hotel.

Seo says, knock on wood, that hasn't happened so far at Water & Wall, and he'd know because Water & Wall has just 15 on hand. Not only are his mugs copper, they're also distinctly accessorized with mustaches."It's because I'm a big-time hipster," he says. "I begged and pleaded to get these mugs, and it worked."Not surprisingly, the decision to opt for mugs in the first place also came from his friend
Jeanette who insisted to Seo that that was the proper presentation format.

Similarly, at Rhodeside Grill, Moscow Mules come in copper mugs and are, without a doubt, the bar's best-selling cocktail, according to bar manager Paul Taylor. On a busy night Rhodeside mixes up 70 of the drinks. Especially for imbibers who might be "frightened of gin, tequila and mezcal," it
makes for an easy drinking entry point, in Taylor's estimation. Choosing to use the copper mugs was not only out of a desire to serve Mules in their "proper cup" — he also says the mugs bring unbelievable attention to the concoction.

"It's like when you go to New Orleans. The first thing you do is get a hurricane in that special glass at Pat O'Brien's," Taylor says. "It elevates that aesthetic appeal, and it's good to have a standout glass that's eye-catching."

The difference, of course, between a hurricane from the famed Bourbon Street piano bar and the Moscow Mule at Rhodeside is customers are encouraged to walk out with with their hurricane drink holders in the Big Easy. Not so much at Rhodeside. That hasn't prevented thefts from happening, though.Taylor says he has to order new replacement mugs a least a few times a year. It's not ideal, but that won't stop his bar from serving Mules any time soon. In fact, Rhodeside is toying with offering frozen Moscow Mules later this summer utilizing a newly-purchased frozen drink machine.

What separates a top-notch Mule from a run-of-the mill one, bartenders told Eater, is the ginger beer. Too sugary of a ginger beer creates an overly sweet drink that's also terrible calorically-speaking. Proportions are also key, so the end product has effervescence, bubbles and spice. Too much or too little ginger beer wrecks this balance.

Rhodeside's solution is to make ginger beer in-house. The process takes a few hours. About 30 pounds of ginger goes through an industrial-strength meat grinder, is squeezed through a cheesecloth and turned into ginger syrup that's stirred and, ultimately, converted into a ginger beer without artificial sweeteners.Then to that, Taylor's bar staff adds Tito's vodka, fresh lime juice and ginger bitters that they also make themselves. In lieu of a straw, the cocktail is topped with a huge sprig of mint."(If it's done right) it's very fresh tasting," he says. "Mules are taking people away from their
regular vodka sodas and giving them something a little different."

Meanwhile at TRIO Grill in Falls Church, where Moscow Mules outsell most other cocktails three to one, Tito's is the vodka used, and the ginger beer of choice is Fever Tree. Fresh lime juice also is incorporated, and bartenders muddle a bit of ginger. TRIO manager Jason Osborne, who also runs the beverage program, says the key to their Mule is consistency. All bar staff are required to use jiggers to measure out the components and ensure they're precise.

In an era of "cocktail mania," where mixologists are dreaming up incredibly complex alcoholic creations, he says his philosophy is to not over complicate things, employ classic ratios and use really good ingredients. That's the mentality behind their Moscow Mule as well. "A lot of people haven't had it the right way. It's hard to find, especially in the suburbs," Osbourne says.Customers are flocking to the vodka-based beverage overall because of the "coolness of the mug," which also does a great job of insulating the Mule, and the high level of drinkability. Soon, it could be the new Mojito, he insists."It's refreshing as all get up," Osborne says. "It's what I call a dangerous cocktail because you can easily find yourself sucking many of them down."

Other bars in the area are veering a bit further away from the traditional or featuring Mules prominently. Daikaya has a Moscow Mule on draft for patrons available in its upstairs izakaya. Belgian eatery B Too on 14th Street has, not surprisingly, a Belgian Mule that utilizes Genever instead of the classic vodka. Arlington hotspot Lyon Hall has what it calls an SJF, essentially a
Moscow Mule, for $5 during happy hour every day. And Marriott's High Velocity has ten different mules to choose from, including the signature Virgin-Gin. They're even offering a discount for cup thieves who return the mini-cups stolen from the Marquis opening to the sports bar.
—Dena Levitz
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Marriott's coveted mini-Mule cups [Photo: Marriott]

Water & Wall

3811 Fairfax Dr, Arlington, VA 22203