the Bourbon Issue

Kentucky Mules

Mules are a category of cocktail, and they don’t all come from Moscow.

That may be hard to believe, given the sea of copper (or copper-colored mugs) that has washed over the world’s bars over the last decade, most festooned with the logo of some vodka company or other. These are used to hold Moscow Mules, a 1940s Hollywood invention composed of vodka, lime juice and ginger beer that has come roaring back recently after decades of obscurity.

Like many popular cocktails, the Moscow Mule has spawned an entire cocktail book’s worth of riffs and spins on the original recipe. Basically any spirit can be plugged into this formula. The Mezcal Mule, using the smoky Mexican distillate, may be the most popular variation at the moment. But whiskey has wheedled inside the copper cup as well, in the form of the Kentucky Mule. It is, as you’ve surely guessed, made with bourbon instead of vodka. Some recipes add mint as a garnish, but then you can’t stop Kentuckians from putting mint in their bourbon.

The Kentucky Buck, like the Moscow before it, has inspired its own riffs. Perhaps the most popular and famous variation came out of San Francisco. There, in 2009, at the Rickhouse cocktail bar, bartender Erick Castro created the Kentucky Buck, in which he substituted lemon juice for lime and dashed in a little Angostura bitters. But the big addition that really made the drink was a muddled strawberry, which lent the highball its soothing fruity flavor and a vibrant rosy color. The drink remains the most noted cocktail to ever come out of Rickhouse, and it has been served at taverns the world over.

You may notice that Castro called his drink a Buck, not a Mule. What’s the difference between a Buck and a Mule, you may ask? Nothing. They’re both terms for cocktails made with ginger beer. So why did Castro call his drink the Kentucky Buck, not the Kentucky Mule? The same reason the Moscow Mule wasn’t christened the Moscow Buck. Assonance and alliteration. It just sounded better.