Among the oldest and most versatile drink categories, the buck—more commonly known as the mule—remains as ripe a template for riffing today as at the time of its creation in the late-19th century.

While ginger beer has always been the defining characteristic, today’s bartenders often translate its spicy character in a more concentrated form by way of ginger syrup, using elements like fresh fruit and liqueurs to up the flavor ante. Pamplemousse and Aperol, for example, add bittersweet components to Aaron Polsky’s agave-driven Tequila Grapefruit Mule, while fresh muddled raspberries and strawberries brighten the bourbon buck construction in Jordan Brower’s Raspberry Beret and Erick Castro’s Kentucky Buck, respectively.

It’s the vodka-based Moscow Mule, however, that’s inspired the most riffs, likely because of its iconic status in pop culture. Thanks to a clever marketing campaign launched in the mid-20th century to promote Smirnoff vodka, the Moscow Mule became inextricably linked to its namesake copper mug—effectively marking the first time a specific drink would be used to advertise a spirit. Before long, thanks in part to celebrity-driven ads celebrating “Mule Parties,” vodka would go on to supplant both whiskey and gin as the country’s preferred spirit, a title that it would hold until the latter part of the century.

So it’s no surprise that bartenders around the country are adding just small tweaks to that original formula. At Wright & Co., in Detroit, Kathleen Hawkins adds a floral note to the drink using a measure of lavender syrup, but keeps its blueprint intact. Likewise, Dan Sabo of LA’s Hotel Figueroa simply adds a splash of Aperol, plus pink peppercorn- and chamomile-infused syrup to his aptly named Pink Camo Mule, which gets added spice by way of the traditional ginger beer topper.

With such a roster of modern twists, perhaps it’s time to reconsider the mule. But then again, it never really left.

A Pack of Modern Mules

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