The Moscow Mule: A Stubborn Cocktail Kickstarts Competitors

September 9, 2015, 12:27 PM HST · Updated September 9, 1:20 PM
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By Kiaora Bohlool

“Three guys walk into a bar…”

It could be the start of a corny joke.

Or it could be the beginning of a cocktail that’s stood the test of time.

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Basically, three failing prospects united to make a success: a drink known as the Moscow Mule.  In that bar decades ago, the first guy brought vodka, as Chandra Lucariello of Southern Wine & Spirits of Hawaiʻi tells us:

“Vodka came out in 1950 and no one understood it.  They’re like ‘What is this stuff?  It has no flavor!  I’m used to bourbon or tequila or rum.’  And so this one gentleman went to the bar one night and he said, ‘You know buddy, this vodka is just not working for me.  I’m not selling any of it.’”

As the story goes, a second person piped up at the bar, discouraged for his own reasons.  “Another gentleman said, ‘I have this soda, it tastes like ginger, it’s called ginger beer, and no one’s buying it from me either,’” Lucariello explains.

Thankfully, the man who owned the bar was listening too.  “The bar owner had a bunch of copper mugs in his basement, and he’s like, ‘These are all going to waste, they’re all dusty,’” says Lucariello.  “So they put all three together, and Voilà!  The Moscow Mule was born. People saw those copper mugs going through the restaurant, and they said, ‘What is that? I want to have it!’”

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    Ocean vodka, next to a copper Moscow Mule mug. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Ocean vodka, next to a copper Moscow Mule mug.
    Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Ingredients in a signature Moscow Mule cocktail, on the bar menu at Monkeypod Kitchen in Wailea. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Ingredients in a signature Moscow Mule cocktail, on the bar menu at Monkeypod Kitchen in Wailea. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Chandra Lucariello of Southern Wine & Spirits of Hawai'i, ambassador of the Maui Mule. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Chandra Lucariello of Southern Wine & Spirits of Hawai’i, ambassador of the Maui Mule. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Copper mugs at Moscow Mule Maui Style. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Copper mugs at Moscow Mule Maui Style. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Moscow Mule Maui Style participant Eloise Zenger of Seattle gets creative at the cocktail buffet bar. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Moscow Mule Maui Style participant Eloise Zenger of Seattle gets creative at the cocktail buffet bar. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Winner of the best cocktail in Moscow Mule Maui Style, Judy Shields of Alaska. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Winner of the best cocktail in Moscow Mule Maui Style, Judy Shields of Alaska. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Chocolate feuillantine with Kuʻau orange liliko‘i cream, created by Westin Kāʻanapali Ocean Resort Villas executive chef Francois Milliet for the Moscow Mule pairing lunch. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Chocolate feuillantine with Kuʻau orange liliko‘i cream, created by Westin Kāʻanapali Ocean Resort Villas executive chef Francois Milliet for the Moscow Mule pairing lunch. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Maui cattle beef tenderloin, Kula corn, mushrooms, pork belly croutons and pho chimichurri, crafted by Westin Kāʻanapali Ocean Resort Villas executive chef Francois Milliet for the Moscow Mule pairing lunch. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Maui cattle beef tenderloin, Kula corn, mushrooms, pork belly croutons and pho chimichurri, crafted by Westin Kāʻanapali Ocean Resort Villas executive chef Francois Milliet for the Moscow Mule pairing lunch. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    A mix of drinks at Moscow Mule Maui Style.

    A mix of drinks at Moscow Mule Maui Style.

    To celebrate his life and achievements, the Hawai'i Food & Wine Festival honored Shep Gordon with a six-course dinner created by six of his chef friends at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa on Sunday, Sep. 6. Photo credit: Greg Poulos.

    To celebrate his life and achievements, the Hawai’i Food & Wine Festival honored Shep Gordon with a six-course dinner created by six of his chef friends at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa on Sunday, Sep. 6. Photo credit: Greg Poulos.

    Chefs and supporters at the Sep. 6 event to honor Shep Gordon at the Hawai'i Food & Wine Festival in Kāʻanapali. The celebration featured a six-course dinner created by six of his chef friends at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa. Photo credit: Chuck Bergson.

    Chefs and supporters at the Sep. 6 event to honor Shep Gordon at the Hawai’i Food & Wine Festival in Kāʻanapali. The celebration featured a six-course dinner created by six of his chef friends at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa. Photo credit: Chuck Bergson.

    Moscow Mule Maui Style participants at the bar buffet, creating their own cocktails. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Moscow Mule Maui Style participants at the bar buffet, creating their own cocktails. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    And apparently, 65 years later, people still want to have it.  In a copper mug.  And so they did, on Saturday September 5, at Moscow Mule Maui Style.  About 100 people showed up to the event at The Westin Kāʻanapali Ocean Resort Villas.  First, they got an education from mixologist Jasen Vendrell from Monkeypod Kitchen in Wailea.  He showed them how to make their own ginger beer, which is a crucial part of the Moscow Mule, along with lime juice and, of course, vodka.

    The vodka of choice was Maui’s own Ocean Vodka, and master distiller Bill Scott was on-hand to explain the benefits.

    “We’re really the only organic vodka made on the island, the only one growing its own ingredients,” Scott says. “The company’s mission is to really reverse-integrate, so we not only have the farming aspect, we have the production aspect, we have the local aspect, and that’s what we’re really striving to do.”

    So we’ve got the vodka.  And the ginger beer.  What about the rest?  That was up to about 100 rookie cocktail creators.  Participants had the chance to put their own unique twists on the Moscow Mule, choosing from a bar buffet with choices like basil, kaffir lime leaf, Calamansi citrus, pineapple, berries, coconut water, and an array of pureéd fruit juices.  After much experimentation and sipping, teams then decided on the best cocktail from their group, which made it to the judges’ table.

    “I put basil, pineapple, I think it was a tomato, I’m not sure!”  Eloise Zenger, visiting from Seattle, laughs as she muddles her drink, adding, “I’m having a blast, I think it’s really great!”

    Eloise didn’t mix the winning drink, but she was part of the winning team.  The chosen cocktail came from Judy Shields, visiting Maui from Alaska.  Shields, who named her drink Bird of Paradise, says she put a lot of thought into her mix of ingredients, like fresh ginger, Calamansi citrus, strawberry, basil, kaffir lime leaf and crushed pineapple.  She was confident it was a good one, especially when her brother almost drank the whole cup before it got to the judges’ table.

    “It’s kind of an honor because this is a very classy event; it’s beautiful, it’s obviously a primo event in Hawaiʻi,” she says, “and for me to win the drink-mixing contest is hilariously funny, and it was very, very, very much fun. So it feels good.”’

    So it turns out, the Moscow Mule is no joke.  Lucariello says it’s made a craft-cocktail-comeback, copper mug and all:  “Now it’s definitely back in full swing, all the craft cocktail bars are serving it and it’s probably one of the most popular cocktails today.”

    Those indulging in the popular cocktail at Saturday’s event also enjoyed a light lunch, paired to match the flavors of the Moscow Mule.  The menu, created by Westin Kāʻanapali Ocean Resort Villas executive chef, Francois Milliet, opened with smoked Kona kampachi, deconstructed gazpacho, garlic and black soy.  The main course featured Maui cattle beef tenderloin, Kula corn, mushrooms, pork belly croutons and pho chimichurri.  There was chocolate feuillantine (thin pastry strips) with Kuʻau orange liliko‘i cream for dessert.

    “We told the chef we were going to be using the flavors of ginger and fresh herbs,” Lucariello explains, “and he really tried to incorporate those things when he was planning the menu.”

    And there were other memorable menus over the weekend, as part of Food & Wine Festival Kāʻanapali.  Friday September 4, dinner was prepared by five prominent chefs and served on the 19th hole at Roy’s Annual Golf Classic on Kāʻanapali Golf Course.  Saturday evening brought Maui on my Mind, a gourmet dinner on the lawn at the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa, with food crafted by eight notable chefs.  Sunday, September 6 paid tribute to Shep Gordon, a Maui resident and longtime Hollywood agent to stars and celebrity chefs.  The Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa hosted the event, which celebrated Shep’s documentary and featured a lavish six-course dinner created by six of his chef friends.

    The Hawaiʻi Food & Wine Festival started August 29 on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi, before moving to Maui.  It ramps up again today on Oʻahu, with various events running through Sunday, September 13.  Click here to find out more about what’s happening.

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