The Moscow Mule sucks: 15 bartenders name their most overrated and underrated cocktails
The Moscow Mule was birthed in the late '30s as a marketing strategy to introduce vodka to American audiences. And it dies right now.
Cocktail trends come and go quicker than lazy barbacks, so to take the pulse of the industry, we asked 15 renowned bartenders to share which cocktails they think deserve to be called on more often, and which you should never call back. So although there's nothing actually wrong with a well-stirred copper mug of vodka, mint, and ginger, next time you're at the bar, try ordering a Negroni on ice or a sherry cocktail. You may earn yourself that all-important bartender nod of approval.
DALE "KING COCKTAIL" DEGROFF
Overrated: Negroni served up
"American bartenders have damaged this Italian classic by serving it up in a cocktail glass. The first sip is the best, and with each successive sip, the bitterness becomes more and more apparent as the drink warms. Eventually the balance of the drink skews more bitter and we lose the lovely gin and vermouth notes, and thus the complexity."
Underrated: Negroni over ice in a double Old-Fashioned glass
"Italians understand bitterness and how to craft perfect drinks with bitter elements. The Negroni served over ice cubes in a double Old-Fashioned glass (or bucket glass, as it is referred to by some of the old-timers out west), improves with each sip. I used the plural cubes because it is dilution that mellows the bitter notes, creating a more interesting marriage of the gin, vermouth, and Campari. A lesson that can be applied to other bitters-based stirred drinks."
JARED SHEPARD - EVELYN DRINKERY (New York, NY)
Overrated: Vesper Martini
"I don’t find the drink very interesting, nor do I find James Bond's treatment of the drink (shaken until ice cold rather than stirred) particularly erudite. Then again, I don’t like ice chips in my drink. But James Bond can’t be wrong, can he?"
"This one is tougher, because who’s doing the rating? I think a Negroni, measured precisely, and stirred to the right dilution, is basically the perfect cocktail. There are hints of sweet from the Campari, the gin, and sweet vermouth (I prefer a bitter vermouth like Punt e Mes), but also bitterness from both the Campari and vermouth, and good acidity from the vermouth. All parts lend to the round viscosity of the drink. It’s got great balance. I don’t think enough people appreciate Negronis, but then again, there are probably millions who do. Oh, and Americanos. More people should drink Americanos. Especially at the beginning or end of the night."
JIM MEEHAN - PDT (New York, NY)
Overrated: Any drink with OJ
"I’m proud of my Blood and Sand recipe. I enjoy an Applejack Rabbit once every fall. I still wonder why the Bronx Cocktail was popular during its time. I view the Screwdriver as an alcoholic vitamin C delivery vehicle and nothing more. What do all these things have in common? Orange juice. It has a tangy quality that I do not prefer in cocktails, and I’m not alone on this one."
Underrated: Gin and Tonic
"I don’t think the Gin and Tonic is under appreciated, as much as taken for granted. Anyone can make a Gin and Tonic. But very few people consider the botanicals in the gin, and choose a tonic water suited to accentuate them. Most don’t think about the gin’s strength, and the imbiber’s palate before deciding what ratio of gin to tonic to use (I measure the tonic water with a jigger too). A two ingredient cocktail should be terrifying, not disarming. It forces you to consider using a nicer glass, straw, and ice to make up for its seeming simplicity. What about the garnish: do you squeeze the lime wedge for the guest or just affix it to the rim of the glass? In Spain, where this is the most popular drink, they serve it in a wine glass with a lemon, not a lime. Lots to consider."
MARTIN CATE - SMUGGLER'S COVE (San Francisco, CA)
Overrated: Blood and Sand
"The most overrated cocktail that comes to mind is the Blood and Sand -- it's terrible, yet it keeps popping up on vintage-leaning cocktail menus. It's unbalanced, and the combination of Scotch and orange juice just turns my stomach."
Underrated: Picon Punch
"The most underrated drink is one of the great traditions of the California and Nevada Basque communities, the Picon Punch. Enjoyed with locally made Torani Amer as it has been for over 70yrs, or with the newly imported Bigallet China-China Amer, it's a refreshing, yet bitter aperitif, and perfect on a hot Bakersfield afternoon before a giant Basque dinner."
ERIC ALPERIN - THE VARNISH, HALF STEP (Los Angeles, CA and Austin, TX)
Overrated: Moscow Mule
"Invented in 1941 by Martin and Morgan, who took vodka (new to the USA) and ginger beer and built the drink in an engraved copper mug that was marketed with bartender photographs taken at various bars with Martin's new Polaroid camera. It caught on like wildfire. Don't get me wrong, it works, straightforward, but everyone is using it as the cocktail that placates the vodka drinkers. Try adding gin or tequila to your ginger beer in place of vodka -- it's much more dynamic. If you want vodka, order a good one and have it stirred up and cold so you can actually taste its subtlety. Plus, everyone is trying to bring back the copper mugs, and they become a headache keeping them from walking out the front door of the bar."
"Invented by mining engineer Jennings Cox in Cuba in 1898. Named after Daiquiri. It is the simplest and most elegant of sours. Fresh lime juice, sugar, and rum; we prefer the juice from 86 Co.: Caña Brava Rum. It has taken on the stigma over the years of some fruity, sugary, large scale slushy mess. Three simple ingredients that, when shaken together and served up, dry and cold, is an oral harmony. Not too sweet. The best things are usually simple fresh ingredients prepared well. I can swig these down in two-three gulps. A little insider tip: you will become your cocktail bartender's best friend by ordering one of these. We have had it on our menu at The Varnish in the past, and presently our opening menu at Half-Step features a Daiquiri. Bartender code: 'Time for a family meal of Snaqueris?' Basically half Daiquiris for the entire working staff to gulp down for some mid-shift fortification. So next time you step up to the bar, come over to our side."
BILLY RAY - THE FLINTRIDGE PROPER, FORMOSA CAFE, BLIND BARBER, 13-STITCHES (Los Angeles, CA)
Overrated: Moscow Mule
"Don’t get me wrong, they don’t suck, and they sure do get the job done. But anyone can make this drink at home, so when I go out and see it on a cocktail list and it's $15, it's not justified for me unless you're making ginger beer in-house or using fresh juiced ginger. I know vodka is somewhat looked down on in the cocktail world, and this is why. A bartender can do so many things with vodka. I think that a Moscow Mule is an easy way out for bar managers, sometimes. On the other hand, Moscow Mules make the bar good money quickly. So you're damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Pick your poison."
"The Savoy Cocktail Book says that 'it will either cure a rattlesnake bite, or kill rattlesnakes'. This is a fantastic drink. Every time I see someone sling out a egg white whisky sour, I want to call for a Rattlesnake. It might be the raddest f**king cocktails ever, and yeah, I said raddest. The drink speaks for itself. So I beg you America: put this on your list. If you don’t, it's proof that you hate America."
BENJAMIN SCHILLER - THE BERKSHIRE ROOM, THE FIFTY/50 RESTAURANT GROUP (Chicago, IL)
Overrated: Bloody Mary
"Cocktails like the Bloody Mary, a drink that focuses on everything but the base spirit, run a bit against the grain to me. While I'll never refuse any guest a cocktail that I have the ingredients to make, I must admit a sense of bewilderment whenever I see an order for one come through the printer late at night. To each their own."
Underrated: Gin and tonic
"I recently read an article with a sub-header that went something like, 'Don't you dare order a Gin and Tonic from these amazing bartenders.' Really? A good or great gin mixed with a well-made tonic are off limits now? There are several well-made tonics that are commercially available and delicious, and quite a few bartenders I know make their own amazing tonic. Some are prepared with a specific gin in mind. Overall, I prefer a spirit forward, minimal approach to mixing drinks. So when I come across a drink that is delicious, and contains nothing superfluous, I consider that job well done."
JOAQUIN SIMO - POURING RIBBONS (New York, NY)
Overrated: Dry Martini
"Vermouth is still tragically misunderstood and terribly unappreciated. It plays a critical role in the Martini -- softening the boozy edges of the gin, adding herbal & floral notes, and bringing the proof down to a more enjoyable level. It also adds richness to the mouthfeel (even 'dry' vermouths contain sugar), as well as providing a necessary foil for the third classic ingredient in the Martini: orange bitters. But alas, decades of bartenders serving rancid liquid from bottles simmered for months on lit-up back bars has all but permanently swayed most drinkers away from that glorious fortified wine. There's just nothing classy about being served 5oz of a chilled spirit in a v-shaped glass so huge you could baptize a child in it, whose contents have to be gulped down incredibly quickly lest you be stuck with a glass half-full of lukewarm gin because you committed the fatal error of choosing conversation over chugging. You can swap out 'lukewarm vodka' in the previous sentence and I will stand by it as well."
Underrated: Vieux Carré
"Every night, I encounter devoted champions of the Manhattan, Sazerac & Old Fashioned. Don't get me wrong -- there's nothing wrong with any of those drinks. In fact, I count them all as some of my own favorites. But with all the hoopla over this holy trinity of brown & stirred cocktails, there's one drink that manages to marry all of them into a single drink and barely anyone calls for it. The Vieux Carré is basically a split-base Manhattan (Cognac + rye), with sweet vermouth, two bitters (Peychaud's and Angostura), with a whisper of the gloriously elegant herbal liqueur Benedictine to gild this boozy lily. It has all the spice and heft of a Manhattan, with gorgeous floral and fruit notes. Maybe if Don Draper has a business trip to New Orleans, he can order one for the sultry-eyed redhead across the spinning Carousel Bar at the Monteleone, and this classic drink will finally get its due."
NICK BENNETT - BOOKER AND DAX (New York, NY)
"Don’t get me wrong, the Mojito is, and will always be, a delicious beverage. Rum, lime, and mint? How could that be bad? It’s not. It’s freaking awesome. My beef with the mojito stems from the fact that it too easily becomes a sloppy mess. Muddling the mint too ferociously will tear it up and result in loose little bits of mint leaves that inevitably end up in my teeth. The balance between just the right amount of mint and too much mint is very easily crossed and can imbalance the cocktail. If given the option, try a Queens Park Swizzle, which forces whole mint leaves to the bottom of the glass and floats some bitters on top for a wonderful transition of flavors. Or, perhaps a Bangkok Daiquiri (Booker and Dax’s cocktail consisting of white rum, lime juice, and nitro-muddled thai basil leaves) for a more herbal riff on the same idea."
Underrated: Harvey Wallbanger
"One of the few cocktails to have survived the Seventies, often called the Death Valley of cocktail eras, this has to be one of the least appreciated cocktails. When lime cordials were replacing fresh juice and American schnapps were being overused to make drinks, this vodka-based recipe utilized fresh orange juice and a float of an oft-under appreciated Italian herbal liqueur, Galliano. For some reason, you can always find this 3ft tall bottle in a dark corner in every bar, hidden behind the more recognizable Campari or Fernet. Brush the dust off the bottle and give this cocktail a try."
TODD MAUL - CLIO (Boston, MA)
"Bad white rum, mint, lime, white sugar, and soda water. It’s one dimensional and thin; even with a great rum the drink is okay. The white sugar just adds sweet nothing to the overall flavor."
Underrated: Le Ti'Punch
"We make our own sugar syrup from real sugarcane Clement V.S.O.P Rhum and lime. This drink has all the flavor of real sugar. It blends beautifully with the Agricole Rhum, and it is a true expression of sugar."
GARRETT MIKELL - GENERAL LEE'S (Los Angeles, CA)
Overrated: Moscow Mule
"Regretfully, it's the Moscow Mule. Used to be the gateway drug to virgin patrons of the craft cocktail movement. It was made with pride because we knew it was palatable and bright and flavorful, and that it really embodied the basic qualities of what the movement represented. I think that it's now become an easy go-to for a crowd that doesn't necessarily appreciate a great cocktail program, and that even as bartenders, it's kind of the new 'vodka soda'. Snobby douches we are."
Underrated: Whiskey Sour
"A properly shaken sour is such a wonderful piece of f**king art. When garnished with the appropriate measure of bitters, I can think of nothing that fits every season so perfectly. The warming of the whiskey and bitters, the crisp, velvety refreshment of the egg white -- just enough sugar to take you back to your grandmother's lemon ice box pie. Man, that's going to go away soon. Not whiskey sours. Proper lemon ice box pie."
JACKSON CANNON - EASTERN STANDARD, HAWTHORNE (Boston, MA)
Overrated: The Manhattan
"It may be heresy in the eyes of the cocktail revival intelligentsia, but I submit that the proof that this cocktail is overrated is in the fact that several of its descendants are much better drinks. The Vieux Carre, Greenpoint, Red Hook, Caroll Gardens and, in a sense, even La Vina, all express the balance of whiskey, vermouth, and bitters better than the 'Godfather' of stirred drinks, The Manhattan."
"This drink, on the other hand, has spawned a thousand variants that play with the perfect balance of gin and sweet lime but never do they truly improve on that elegance through simplicity that is the gimlet. Always use a London dry gin (Beefeater, Ford's, or Tanqueray) with fresh lime juice and simple syrup. A pinch of quality sea salt heightens the expressiveness of this classic cocktail."
JUSTIN ELLIOTT - QUI (Austin, TX)
"Look, I don't come here to bury the Manhattan Cocktail. Especially in its ideal form -- rye whiskey, plenty of Italian vermouth, aromatic bitters, stirred, and straight up -- this is one of the simplest and most sturdy of all the Golden Age classics, which is why it managed to survive through Prohibition and the even darker years that followed, albeit in an often neutered, bourbon-centric form. But that's the thing: it's become completely ubiquitous; it's a signifier of drinking cocktails as much as it gets to be consumed as an actual cocktail, and by that metric it is DEFINITIVELY 'overrated'. It's the steak frites of cocktails: usually a delight, but nearly never transcendent."
"The elevator pitch here is that this cocktail is a Rum Manhattan (though, as a bigger fan of this drink, I prefer to think of the Manhattan as a Whiskey Palmetto). I take mine with an aged Rhum Agricole (the Neisson Élevé Sous Bois is a personal favorite) which imparts some of the typical notes of well-aged rye whiskey (grass, cocoa, spice) but in an even more dynamically-structured, damn-near-technicolor kind of way. Instead of flavoring whiskey with some Italian vermouth, here, the rhum and the vermouth -- all spice and herb and cocoa -- play off of each other, creating an even more intense whole."
ALEX LERMAN - THE GREEN RUSSELL (Denver, CO)
Overrated: Moscow Mule
"I've got to go with the Mule on this considering that it's made with vodka, it only takes on the flavor of what it is being mixed with, and the liquor doesn't complement anything that is being added to the cocktail. Which, in this case, is merely ginger beer and lime juice. Even fresh ginger beer, like we make where I bartend, elevates the cocktail. But it can only do so much. Oh, and the copper mug does not make it taste better, do you really believe everything people tell you?"
"The Classic Daiquiri. Most people don't realize that a daiquiri is meant to be only 3 ingredients; rum, lime juice, and simple syrup. Using a good rum and fresh squeezed lime juice makes this a beautifully refreshing and vibrant cocktail that is meant to be enjoyed at any occasion. Don't let the resorts fool you with all the fruit garnishes and colored liqueurs. This drink is meant to be simple, yet elegant."
RYAN MCGRALE - TAVERN ROAD (Boston, MA)
Overrated: Whiskey Smash
"At its core, it is a great cocktail: simple, yet, not too mind-blowing. It’s a great drink when it’s warm outside, but I can think of a dozen other choices that are more interesting. And, though made in a lot of bars, most vary and some truly are made terribly."
Underrated: Sherry cocktails
"A personal favorite of mine, sherry is a delicious spirit on its own. Dry, nutty, savory and aromatic. I love using it in cocktails, especially as spirits like mezcal are getting increasingly popular. Sherry is slowly making its way onto the grid, appearing in lots of great cocktails. The "Bamboo" cocktail is the standard sherry cocktail, followed by a classic Sherry Cobbler."
Dan Gentile is a staff writer on Thrillist's national food/drink team and will now be ordering his Negronis over ice and his Moscow Mules with a twist of embarrassment. Follow his zesty observations at @Dannosphere.