If you’ve ever seen someone sipping a cocktail from a copper mug, you might assume it’s a Moscow Mule. The drink, made with vodka, ginger beer and lime juice, is well known across the globe—especially when served in its iconic cup. Yet it might actually be one of the drink’s many variations, which include everything from the Irish Mule and Ramos Mule to the Paloma Mule and Mezcal Mule. Or, one of our favorites: the Kentucky Mule.
“It’s balanced perfection,” says Kait Whitenack, cultural ambassador for Bulleit Frontier Whiskey. The best cocktails are a combination of “spirits, citrus and [something] sweet and herbaceous,” and that’s the Kentucky Mule to a tee. It swaps bourbon for the Moscow Mule’s standard vodka, making for a spicy, sweet and strong beverage.
Here’s everything you need to know about drinking, serving and making your very own Kentucky Mule at home.
What Is a Kentucky Mule?
The Kentucky Mule is a type of highball, a drink made with an ounce or two of spirit and a carbonated beverage, like tonic water, soda or ginger beer, explains Whitenack.
“They are also served over ice and can contain the addition of citrus or fresh fruit and herbs to add more flavor components,” adds Meaghan Dorman, bar director of Dear Irving and Dear Irving on Hudson in New York.
Like its cousin, the Moscow Mule, a Kentucky Mule is often served in a copper mug. The addition of bourbon creates a “flavor profile that is more than the sum of its parts,” Dorman says, adding that the cocktail often boasts “more depth than similar drinks.” In a Kentucky Mule, “the rounded vanilla and grain notes of the whiskey mix well with the earthy spice of ginger,” she continues. “The citrus keeps it bright and crisp.”
Gary Gruver, director of beverage for Marriott International, says the type of bourbon one chooses can change the nature of a Kentucky Mule. “A younger bourbon with around 80 to 86 proof lends lightness and session-ability, while a high-proof or aged bourbon contributes complexity,” he says.
Where Did the Kentucky Mule Come From?
Nobody knows for sure, but as previously mentioned, the Kentucky Mule is a riff on the popular Moscow Mule. Some say the Moscow Mule got its name from the “kick” the ginger beer provides, Gruver says. (Mules—the animal, not the cocktail—are famously known for their kicking tendencies.)
Who was the first bartender to swap bourbon for vodka? Your guess is as good as ours. It’s not even certain if it was invented in Kentucky, or simply named in reference to the use of Kentucky bourbon used, Whitenack adds.
Kentucky Mule Recipe
Recipe by Jacy Topps
- 2 ounces bourbon
- 1/2 ounce lime juice, freshly squeezed
- Ginger beer, to top
- Mint spring, for garnish
Add bourbon and lime juice to a copper mule mug or a highball glass. Fill with ice and top with ginger beer. Garnish with a mint sprig.
What Is the Difference Between a Moscow Mule and a Kentucky Mule?
A Moscow Mule is made with vodka, whereas a Kentucky Mule is made with bourbon. While vodka is a neutral grain spirit, bourbon offers notes of oak, caramel, vanilla and smoke that create a more complex, interesting cocktail, Whitenack says.
Why Do You Serve a Kentucky Mule in a Copper Mug?
Whitenack explains there is a “mug myth,” in which the daughter of a copper maker connected with a man at a local pub who was trying to sell vodka and another trying to sell ginger beer. The three decided to team up, and the Moscow Mule was born.
Dorman heard a different story that points to Smirnoff. The vodka brand supposedly popularized the copper mug during its U.S. launch, targeting the Hollywood crowd. The mug acts as a “clear signal of what you were drinking,” she says.
No matter the origin story, what’s settled now is that the copper mug is “traditional” to mules, says Nick Wilson, general manager at The Silver Dollar bar in Louisville, Kentucky. Some people believe the cup “boosts the flavor and aromas of the ginger and lime juice, and just makes it taste fresher,” he admits, but he’s not making that claim. “It definitely keeps the drink colder for longer.”
Can You Use Ginger Ale in a Kentucky Mule?
While you can definitely use ginger ale if you prefer a sweeter cocktail, Dorman warns that you lose a lot of the spice and kick that ginger beer brings to the cocktail. It’s not something she generally recommends.
Last Updated: August 25, 2023