Emilio Villarruel
Emilio Villarruel
Director of Marketing

Tipsy Travels: Moscow Mules in Los Angeles

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Tipsy Travels: Moscow Mules in Los Angeles

The Tipsy Travels series has shown love to some of my favorite locations (and libations) worldwide - with Taipei, Seoul, London, and even my hometown of Detroit getting spotlights among others.For our next entry into the series, I start with a bit of an announcement.

By the time you read this I’ll be back in America to visit home for the first time since before the pandemic began. What this means for our readers is twofold, one, hopefully a bevy of new beverages to inspire future Tipsy Travels articles, the other is the perfect opportunity to look back at another classic American cocktail - The Moscow Mule.

The Moscow Mule follows a trend of evocative, creative, but ultimately misleading cocktail names (after all, who talks less after a Last Word or two?). The Moscow Mule originated, not at the hands of elite Soviet mixologists but in a much less exotic location, with a birth of much more mundane means - Los Angeles, California. 

I first visited Los Angeles following a lengthy stint living in South Korea. My time in Korea was unquestionably fantastic. I delved into and developed a passion for entirely new and exotic flavor profiles, learning to love mokbal and mageoli, soondubu and soju alike. I fell in love with  the infinite permutations of other local culinary delights that a new place and culture offered. I can’t say enough positive things about my time there and friends made, but there was a simple issue - it wasn’t home.  After several years abroad, much like now, it was time for me to give my passport a rest and spend some time on more familiar soil - or so I thought. 

My initial entry into Los Angeles was meant to be a short five-day stay before bouncing around the United States to touch base with family and friends I hadn’t seen since before beginning my travels. As I headed down the steps of LAX’s Tom Bradley terminal I paused at the towering American flag overhead with “Welcome to the United States” spelled out in brushed metal lettering.  Words fail to describe what that moment is like, absent thoughts of problems or politics, I took a beat just to appreciate the familiarity. I’ve pictured my upcoming visit to that spot a thousand times. Simply put, it’s good to be home.  Though I’m inclined to wax poetic about the experience, my jubilation was short lived, in my recollection, a particularly unpleasant customs agent soured the memory. That said, there was something oddly comforting to the exchange. I’ve dealt with unpleasant government workers before! After all my time abroad, there was even something comforting to learn that some things never change - even the not so great stuff.

Undeterred and with bags freshly collected in hand I departed the terminal to a greeting of bumper to bumper traffic crawling at a leisurely pace. LA is unabashed in most things, including its introductions - the traffic is only a teaser at what to expect once you hit the road. A friend awaited at a nearby In-N-Out to pick me up once I exited and with greetings exchanged and luggage stowed, I set off for my California adventure. 

The name Los Angeles is a reminder of its cultural and historical DNA. Once owned by Spain then Mexico before ultimately passing hands to the United States, L.A. has never forgotten its roots, and if you don’t speak Spanish or have a friendly local on hand you’ll miss out on some of the best Mexican food you can find this side of the border. With good Latin cuisine evading me for much of my time in Korea (since then remedied), the chance at authentic eats was a refreshing change of pace.

With California later serving as a point of entry for Asian immigrants seeking to start a life in the U.S., the Asian diaspora set deep roots as well, making L.A. home to some of the best Asian food I’ve ever eaten (regardless of locale).  With Latino heritage, a lifetime spent in Asia, and a distinctly American upbringing, in many ways, Los Angeles, California is a place uniquely suited to my cultural makeup. Los Angeles welcomes its influences and dials them up to 11 with a little American muscle.

The week in L.A. came and went quickly, with more meals and drinks than I can count or recall - to which I largely credit the drinks. One exchange though stands out well defined amidst the blur. The night before my flight, as I prepared my bags for my next destination, I was invited to drinks by a close friend at a Santa Monica institution, The Bungalow.  The invite was curt, “Hey, we’re getting drinks tonight at 8, The Bungalow, Google it.” not quite knowing what to expect I unknowingly found myself at a Santa Monica beach staple (with flowing white drapery and rustic nautical accents to match). 

To a bit of my surprise,  my friend arrived with an associate of his own in tow. After some brief introductions I learned that he was my friend’s boss who we’ll call Rick, and they’d decided a post-work cocktail is the perfect way to start a weekend - okay, we’re off to a good start, these are my kind of people.  After learning it was my first time in L.A., Rick took charge with ordering the first round and I was introduced to a new favorite, “We’ll do a round of Moscow Mules”.

What I learned through the exchange, and a bit of independent research, is that the Moscow Mule’s origins trace back to L.A. in the 1940’s, a product of innovation born through necessity and good old fashioned capitalism. As the story goes, John G. Martin (head of the then small Smirnoff Vodka distillery) and bar owner Jack Morgan were sharing drinks and woes about surplus alcohol they were struggling to move. On one hand vodka had yet to take off in the U.S. as a popular spirit, and Morgan could not get his ginger beer to catch on. 

It’s quite common for bartenders to hear problems shared, and sometimes they even have a solution. Wes Price, head bartender at Morgan’s bar the Cock ‘n’ Bull came up with a solution - The Moscow Mule. Named after Russian vodka and the ginger beer’s ‘kick’. Initially popularized by their movie star clientele, the drink spread like wildfire and remains a popular choice even 80 years after its inception. If you’ve ever had a Moscow Mule, it’s not a challenge to see why. With notes of sour and spice from the ginger beer, a nip of vodka for body and bite, and fresh citrus to balance them together the drink is lively. A cocktail of ideas, challenges, and aspirations as much as its constituent ingredients, the team behind the Moscow Mule blended them together to find success. What more analogy could be better fitting to describe L.A. and its inhabitants’ own journey? 

Ultimately, the night came and went and I found myself flying elsewhere to continue visiting friends and family, though with fond new memories of a previously unfamiliar stomping ground. For a short time I enjoyed the creature comforts of familiar territory until an abrupt call from the aforementioned friend, “Hey man, Rick likes you a lot and we’re looking for someone in marketing…so long story short, want to move to L.A.?” 

Upon accepting the offer and flying out to L.A. that week, we celebrated my new position with Moscow Mules at The Bungalow once again. While I’ve long left that position, L.A., and largely switched to gin for most of my spiritual needs, the Moscow Mule remains a favorite for celebrating big wins and since then I keep some vodka on hand ready for the next occasion. My favorite variation involves Wheatley Vodka (from the mind of Harlen Wheatley, Master Distiller over at Buffalo Trace), enjoy and celebrate your latest win:

The Moscow Mule

1.5 oz Wheatley vodka

1/2 oz fresh lime juice

1/2 cup chilled ginger beer

1 Lime wedge as garnish

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