Ginger Ale, Ginger Beer, and the History of the Moscow Mule

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

Today, we use ginger beer to make Moscow Mules because it adds an intense ginger flavor to the drink. But back when the Moscow Mule was created in 1946, the ginger beer was part of the drink’s marketing strategy.

Ale, no!

If you’ve ever run out of ginger beer, you might have been tempted to substitute ginger ale. The result is a sweeter, bubblier beverage with less kick. Much of the difference lies in the production of each type of drink. Historically, ginger beer was popular first. In fact, it was originally popular as an alcoholic concoction of up to 11% alcohol by volume (ABV). The alcohol content came from fermenting ginger, sugar and water, and then adding a ginger-lemon extraction.

Ginger is a root that is rich in lactic acid bacteria and yeasts. Once it’s mixed with water and sugar, the natural yeasts convert the sugar into ethanol and carbon dioxide. To minimize alcohol content, it’s bottled quickly and refrigerated. Unless sold on the booze aisle, commercially available ginger beer will contain less than 0.5% ABV, making it legally nonalcoholic.

In contrast, ginger ale is basically ginger-flavored soda water. Two types of this stomach-settling soda exist: golden and dry. The golden, as its name suggests, is a darker, spicier potion, while dry tends to be paler and mellower.

Despite the traditional differences in production, currently available ginger ales and ginger beers are much more similar. Many mass-produced ginger beers are made by adding a lot of ginger flavor to soda water. To spot brewed ginger beers, look for sodas that are less carbonated. Some ginger beers are sold unfiltered, so some sediment may accumulate in the bottom of the bottle.

Exceptional thinking

The Moscow Mule is pretty much responsible for making vodka as popular as it is today. Back in 1934, Rudolf Kunnett bought the rights to vodka brand Smirnoff. Five years later, John G. Martin of Heublin, Inc. convinced the higher-ups in his company to buy this fledgling brand for $14,000. Using corks from a failed whiskey-making venture, they bottled the remaining stock.

Even with vodka’s popularity with dedicated drinkers, it wasn’t widely enjoyed in America by 1946. Around this time, John G. Martin started frequenting the Cock ‘n’ Bull Pub in Hollywood. The bar’s owner was having an equally difficult time selling the spicy ginger beer he’d been brewing, and another friend of theirs owned a struggling copper mug company. The three combined their products—along with half a lime and a catchy, meaningless name—and the Moscow Mule was born.

If you’re skeptical of the difference in flavor between ginger ale and ginger beer, try it with both. You can also spice it up by using ginger-infused simple syrup.

Clair McLafferty

Moscow Mule Recipe

½ oz lime juice
½ oz simple syrup
2 oz vodka

Combine all ingredients in a copper mug (or Collins glass). Top with ginger beer and drop in the lime shell. Serve with a straw or something else to use to stir the drink.