The name Moscow Mule may suggest it's a Russian drink, and it does contain vodka, but its other ingredients, ginger beer, bitters bring to mind other countries. Although the three have only come together recently each has its own history.
Vodka originated over a thousand years ago in what is known as the vodka belt, an area composed of Russia, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine. It was generally of a very low quality until the reign of Catherine the Great, when a refining method using charcoal was invented, transforming the drink into a high-quality crystalline liquor. It would remain an Eastern European beverage until World War I when soldiers introduced it to the rest of the world. After World War II American soldiers brought their newly developed taste for vodka. Some distilleries in America began to turn out vodka.
Ginger beer has a 5,000 history that makes vodka seem like the new kid on the block. However, to be more precise, that history is claimed not by the beverage, but to one of its two prime ingredients, ginger. Ginger had long been valued for its medicinal properties owing to gingerol, the natural oil that not only gives it its distinctive fragrance and flavor but is also a powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant agent.
Prior to the incursion of European traders into Asia, ginger was a Southeast Asian secret. However, with the advent of what came to be known as the spice trade, ginger along with sugarcane, another crop that thrived in moist hot atmospheres, found its way to the western world. Sugar cane, another prime ingredient of ginger beer, could not grow in the cool climates of Europe and so its cultivation, along with that of ginger plants was assigned to enslaved Africans who had also been "imported" to the islands. By 1655, Jamaica was the prime producer of ginger and English ships were transporting over two million pounds of the spice to European merchants every year.
It wasn't until the 1700s that the English discovered that these two Caribbean crops could be fermented along with yeast to produce an alcoholic beverage. Thus, ginger beer was born. But hold on - there is one more ingredient integral to the Moscow mule - bitters.
Bitters is the name given to a type of clear grain alcohol that has been infused with botanical matter. Known as botanicals, these additives can be plant roots, stems, leaves, fruits, spices, or herbs. Originally used for medicinal purposes, bitters are now used to balance out the taste of certain cocktails to give them a more complex flavor profile. This is especially true for aromatic bitters like sage, rosemary, mint, lemongrass, and hibiscus. As a rule of thumb, bitters are usually added to drinks that are on the sweet or sour side such as Old Fashioneds, Negronis, Manhattans, and yes, Moscow Mules which is a prime example of a drink that leans heavily toward sweetness and needs a dash of bitters to tone it down a bit.
Angostura bitters, which hails from the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago, are the choice of most bartenders. How Angostura bitters acquire their signature bitter/spicy taste has been a closely guarded secret recipe since it found its way to London in the 1800s and was used in gin-based cocktails so dear to English hearts. But it is said to include over 40 ingredients and is primarily a conglomeration of exotic spices, citrus fruits, vegetable extracts, and the distinctively flavored spice, cardamom.
While it doesn't warrant a spoiler alert, it may come as a surprise to some readers that the Moscow Mule was not born in Moscow but rather in New York City in 1941. That much is known, but exactly who came up with it is a bone of contention. The most popular version is that a hotel owner who made ginger beer was discouraged when no customers at the hotel's bar were buying it and was commiserating with a vodka company president who was having trouble introducing and marketing his product to the American public. After a few drinks, they came up with the idea of combining their two problem beverages. They poured it into two copper mugs that happened to be handy, added a touch of lime juice, and guess what they had - the first Moscow Mule.
This version was long considered to be the true story until 2007 when the Wall Street Journal published a story claiming that it was not the hotel owner, but his head bartender who, while trying to clear out the basement, decided to combine the two ingredients of which he had a huge surplus. You decide which is true.
As to how the New York cocktail got its Moscow name - well that's a story for another day.