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As drinks historian Ted Haigh tells the story in Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, the Moscow Mule was invented in the 1940s by Smirnoff executive John Martin and his pal, John Morgan, owner of Los Angeles' Cock and Bull Tavern. Martin, whose company, Heublein, had recently acquired the brand, found himself with vodka to sell, and Morgan had ginger beer he couldn't otherwise use. He also had a girlfriend who had inherited a factory for copper goods. Together, these elements—the vodka, the ginger beer, a copper cup, with some lime for good measure—became the drink that first popularized vodka in America.
So the cocktail is Russian in name alone. But that doesn't stop a great Russian-born pro like Slava Borisov of Chicago's Travelle at The Langham from advising home bartenders on the perfect version of the drink. He suggests "a good portion" of vodka and freshly squeezed lime juice topped with "an evenly spiced ginger beer like Fentiman's or Fever Tree." And though, nowadays, the elixir might come just as often in a highball glass, Borisov prefers his "exclusively in a copper cup to make sure the temperature stays as low as possible for as long as possible." Not only is the industrial metal a great conductor for the chill of the ice, but "serving a Moscow Mule as it is intended is a great ritual."
Picking the right vodka for this favorite drink can be overwhelming with the glut of brands on the market. With the help of industry experts, we've widdled down this list to our favorites. Here are the best vodkas for Moscow Mules to get right now.
Best Overall: Grey Goose Vodka
Region: France | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: Toffee, floral, mineral
“It’s readily available, well-known, and pretty balanced,” says Swet of this “clean,” winter wheat–based vodka from France. “It presents no surprises, so people know what to do with it and what to expect” in their cocktails. That’s a good thing for a drink with such flamboyant additional ingredients. With Grey Goose, says Swet, you can use “a stronger ginger beer, like Jamaican Tiger.” This pure, flexible vodka supports the flavor of the citrus and ginger beer without clashing with it.
Read Next: The Best Russian Vodkas
Best Potato: Boyd & Blair Potato Vodka
Region: Pennsylvania | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: Potato, salt, earth
Swet says this one is a “hands-down” favorite of his for its salt-and-potatoes panache. Made in the spud-growing region of Pennsylvania, it’s made, not through a formulaic process, but batch to batch, according to the palate and instincts of the master distiller at the family-owned operation. Its flavor is “strong enough to cut through the lime and any sweetener, and it stands up to the ginger beer,” says Swet.
Best Everyday: Stolichnaya Vodka
Region: Latvia | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Bread, Confectioner's Sugar, Citrus
"A great household brand that's terrific for mixed drinks" is how Anthony Baker, a veteran bartender of New York's The Aviary and The Grill, describes Stoli vodka. He loves it in a Moscow Mule because its citrus notes enhance the flavor of the fresh lime, its "oiliness and bready notes" add weight to the cocktail, and the finish "has somewhat of a bite" and augments the snap of the ginger beer.
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Best Budget: Smirnoff Vodka
Region: USA | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Grain, Mineral Water, Black Pepper
It might be cheap and ubiquitous, but the original vodka of the Moscow Mule should not be dismissed. "It's big time but they keep up the quality," says Baker. Tripled distilled and filtered a whopping ten times, it's "nice and clean, with no off notes on the back of your tongue." The subtle peppery character enhances the spice of the ginger beer and in the end, there's something to be said for keeping up the tradition.
Best American: Prairie Organic Vodka
Region: Minnesota | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: Pear, corn, canteloupe
Organic corn is the gluten-free base ingredient for this Midwestern vodka that Swet calls “a nice workhorse” for contemporary tastes. “It clicks all the boxes for hipsters,” he says, “and the taste is really there. You can get the corn a little bit in the profile,” which makes it sweet and fruity for a particularly refreshing approach to the Moscow Mule.
Best European: Chopin Potato Vodka
Region: Poland | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: Baked potato, cream,
Local, sustainably grown potatoes go into this Polish. Swet likes it for that “definitive baked potato flavor” that he thinks pairs so well with the lime and ginger notes, and lingers so nicely on the palate, when you’re sipping a Moscow Mule. For cocktail lovers who aren’t looking to mask the flavor of the spirit in their drinks, this big-name bottle is assertive enough that “you can taste it,” says Swet, when it’s blended in.
Best Flavored: Belvedere Ginger Zest Vodka
Region: Poland | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Ginger, Lemon, Grapefruit
When it comes to flavored vodkas, Abou-Ganim suggests this one for a Moscow Mule, noting the way "the sharpness of the ginger and the pronounced lemon notes" in its infusion play perfectly with the spice of the cocktail's signature root and the brightness of its lime. But if all that sounds too sharp for your tastes, be assured that its flavors are mellowed by a silky mouthfeel.
Best Craft: CH Vodka
Region: Chicago | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Pepper, Rye
Charles Joly, founder of Crafthouse Cocktails and a spirits tasting judge at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the Beverage Testing Institute’s International Review of Spirits Competition, uses this Chicago-based craft vodka in the Moscow Mule of his bottled drinks line, Crafthouse Cocktails. With a big, vanilla approach and spicy, pepper-forward finish, it's a vodka that accentuates the sweet kick of the copper-mug cocktail.
Best Organic: Humboldt Organic
Region: California | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Valencia Orange, Fresh Sugar Cane
A lush and citrusy spirit made from organic sugar cane and zero additives on the Northern California coast, this small-batch vodka brings out the best in the fresh lime juice of a Moscow Mule. Its natural grass and caramel notes play off the ginger in intriguing ways. Add a mint spring to the glass to accentuate the brisk freshness of the organic distillate.
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Best Innovative: Smoke Lab Aniseed
Region: India | ABV: 37.5% | Tasting Notes: Aniseed, Cream, Fresh-baked Bread
This soft, subtle vodka produced in India from a base grain of basmati rice "gets along famously with a dry-style ginger beer or ale, a spot of lime juice balancing it," says Bar Back Collective's Arijit Bose. "The aniseed adds a nice, herbal depth and complexity to the humble yet delicious Moscow Mule."
Though Grey Goose (find it on Wine.com) is as straightforward and pleasing as you can get for a neutral vodka to mix into a Moscow Mule, but if you like your drinks zestier, CH Vodka (see it at Totalwine.com), which is made from both wheat and spicy rye, amps up the punchy flavor of the Mule.
What to Look For
Clean flavor profile: Says Swet, “Vodka seems somewhat flavorless, but once you get into it, the flavor profiles are quite different and subtle.” He suggests a vodka that is crisp and clean to hold but not clash with the pungent flavor of the ginger beer. If you do want more punch from your vodka, go for a subtler ginger ale or ginger beer, so the taste of the vodka comes through.
Pure ingredients: Some vodkas, particularly flavored and cheaper ones, contain additives that give them a harsh, chemical taste. That ruins a drink. You want a vodka that’s made only with the base ingredient (usually a grain), yeast, and water from a pure source.
What is vodka made from?
Vodka can basically be made from anything with the sugar in it to be fermented: milk, blueberries, maple syrup. There’s one company that even claims to have gone further, converting CO2 into ethyl alcohol for vodka. But most vodkas start with a starchy material: wheat, rye, corn, potatoes, even rice. That, yeast, and good, clean water is all it takes.
Do all vodkas have the same alcohol content?
All vodkas do not have the same alcohol content. Some vodkas made with botanicals, like the Smoke Lab Aniseed, have slightly lower alcohol contents. Others that are distilled less times and diluted less are big and boozy. But most vodkas clock in at 80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol.
Does the copper mug help the Moscow Mule taste better?
As Johnny Swet points out, today the mugs the drinks are served in are lined or they’re composites, not pure copper, so as the flavor of the metal really isn’t a factor. Still, Slava Borisov prefers his "exclusively in a copper cup to make sure the temperature stays as low as possible for as long as possible." Not only is the industrial metal a great conductor for the chill of the ice, but "serving a Moscow Mule as it is intended is a great ritual."
Why is it called Moscow Mule?
The Moscow part of the drink is easy: The vodka first used for the drink, Smirnoff, originally came from Russia. But there are several theories as to the “mule” part. Some say it refers to the kick of the spicy ginger beer, like the kick of a mule. Others say it’s the way the drink kicks you in the head with its sly booziness. It could also be that Moscow Mule is a fun, alliterative way of describing a vodka buck, a version of the 19th-century drink, the gin buck, which blended gin with ginger beer. Mules are known to buck, i.e. kick high with their two back legs.
Why Trust Liquor.com?
Betsy Andrews has been writing about wine and spirits for two decades. A long-time gin drinker, she first discovered how exciting vodka can be back in 2012 when she was working at Saveur magazine and edited a story on new American craft vodkas. Her favorite way to drink vodka is in a Salty Dog, with fresh grapefruit juice in an iced highball glass with a salted rim.