Wednesday, October 17, 2012

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A Swift Kick from a Kentucky Mule

I am aware, in some vague sense, that a mule is a type of shoe, although I am fairly certain that I don't own any. More familiar to me is the proper dead mule, a symbol deeply entwined in — and arguably a signifier of — the literature of the American South. But it is the Kentucky Mule, that bourbon-fueled harbinger of excess, that has kicked off many an evening with friends and family around the Whiskey Forge.

Everything tastes better through a grunge filter
Some history: Around the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, vodka was an obscure spirit in the United States, small potatoes, nothing like the cash cow it is today. The Moscow Mule is the drink that changed that.  That original mule, a vodka-and-ginger beer highball, was made famous at the Cock 'n' Bull Tavern in Los Angeles. By the time Elvis sang his way through Blue Hawaii twenty years later, the drink had become a classic. In Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, Ted Haigh reports that a girlfriend of Jack Morgan, the Cock 'n' Bull's owner, had inherited a copper goods business. She presumably was the source of the squat copper mugs that remain to this day de rigueur for serving the drink.

Vodka, though, is not everyone's first choice when it comes to making and downing mixed drinks. Nor are copper mugs. Enter the variations. Tweaking the basic idea of a spirit, lime, and ginger beer leads to regional and topical versions of the drink; the Mexican Mule (tequila), Caribbean Mule (rums), the Blackberry Mule, and Audrey Saunders' Gin-Gin Mule. Most of them benefit from a dash or two of cocktail bitters. Classically, that has meant Angostura bitters, but when we swap bourbon for the vodka to yield a Kentucky Mule, I've found that Fee Brothers' old fashion aromatic bitters is the better choice. Use what you've got.

American-style ginger ale doesn't have the backbone this drink requires. Instead, use the more fiery ginger beer. A Cock 'n' Bull brand does exist. We've used that as well as Bundaberg from Australia and the fearsome Blenheim's from South Carolina (I quite like that one, but it's a bit strong for some). We've found that Gosling's sells a reasonably-priced, all-natural ginger beer for making a Dark 'n' Stormy, but it's our favorite of the lot for this drink instead: light fizz, well-balanced ginger taste and aroma, not overly sweet. A liter runs less than $3. No, Gosling's didn't send me any. We just like it a bunch. Get some.
Kentucky Mule 
2 oz good (but not your best) bourbon. Buffalo Trace is great here.
Half a small lime
4-5 oz ginger beer (Gosling's if you've got it; if not, use your favorite)
2 dashes aromatic bitters (Fee Brothers, Angostura, or dealer's choice) 
Build the drink on ice in a highball glass. Squeeze the lime into this and drop in the shell. Dash in the bitters and give it a quick stir. If you're a stickler for tradition, use copper mugs rather than glass. Some folks garnish with mint and lime wedges, but then some folks listen to Nickleback and dabble in crossdressing. To each his own.
Goes well with:
  • The drink's versatility should be apparent and the template works with lots of iterations. Using pisco could result in a Peruvian (or Chilean) Mule. Applejack could yield a New Jersey (or an Orchard) Mule. You get the idea. Use gin, swap in tonic for the ginger beer, and lose the bitters...holy cow, it's a Gin & Tonic. 
  • The truth of food and drink origin stories are so often obfuscated by good stories. Eric Felton takes a closer look at the origin of the Moscow Mule and Cock 'n Bull's head bartender, Wes Price. Felton's version putting Price as the originator feels like a better fit. 
  • I like ginger. There's always some around. Here's what I do with it
  • We did overindulge in mules last year. I'm pleased to be making them again, but one of the drinks we started making when we grew tired of so much ginger beer was the Punky Monkey cocktail with Buffalo Trace bourbon and Scarlet Ibis rum. Good, good stuff. 

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