In this post, we introduce you to the best recipe for the delicious and classic Kentucky Mule: a refreshing, layered, flavorful, deliciously decadent drink. We also discuss the fascinating history of the Kentucky Mule and some of its cousins, namely the Tennessee Mule and the Irish Mule. Let's dive in!
History of the Kentucky Mule
One of our favorite things about studying food & drink is observing the way that recipes will change and adjust as they make their way down the generations, with variations and alternate twists popping up based on individual interpretations of what tastes and feels good. These are subjective judgments that are affected not only by individual preference, but also by shifting tastes, availability of ingredients, and trends. So, a dish or drink that starts off one way can, through the course of a few years, branch off into something different and new.
And these re-interpretations don't just appear with time. Distance also plays a huge factor! As recipes are handed down from person to person, so do they travel large distances, past physical borders, and across regions. All it takes is for one person to think “yes, this tastes great, but what if we add some of our own regional flair?” In this sense, something as seemingly banal as the history of a cocktail can serve as a microcosm of human culture, the way our practices, languages, and customs spread and change over time.
As you might expect, this happens quite often in the world of alcoholic beverages, where playing around with various ingredients to create delicious variations on existing concoctions is almost an artform of its own. Today, we’ll be focusing on one particular example of this: the Kentucky Mule, and subsequently a variation of it called the Irish Mule.
If you’ve never heard of either the Kentucky Mule or the Irish Mule, there’s still a chance you’ve heard of the drink that spawned them, known as the Moscow Mule: a delicious and refreshing cocktail that's famous for its zesty ginger kick as well as being served in eye-catching copper mugs.
Like a lot of great inventions throughout history, the Moscow Mule drink was born out of necessity; an excess supply of vodka and home-brewed ginger beer resulted in putting both of them together and marketing them as a drink. It was served in a copper mug. The drink soon became incredibly popular, transcending its humble origins and catching on among the Hollywood elite and beyond.
But wait, this is about the Kentucky Mule, isn’t it? What’s all this talk about vodka? Well, in this case, the Moscow Mule is an important starting point, because we want to talk about how necessity dictated those initial ingredients and how these were modified as time went on.
As things tend to go, the noble mule drink found its way all through the map of the United States and beyond; crafty barkeeps all over the country started experimenting with regional variations of the drink. Soon you had “Mules” of different origins, usually keeping the ginger beer base but swapping out the spirit.
So, for example, a Mexican Mule was a Moscow Mule with tequila instead of vodka. A Caribbean Mule was similar but with rum in place of tequila. But no matter what the base spirit is swapped out for, the idea behind the cocktail remained consistent: it needs to be an ice-cold, refreshing summertime drink, with a ginger kick.
Well, in real life as in the world of alcoholic beverages, things often have to go through a few different variations before true perfection is achieved. At some point, an anonymous genius decided that they should swap out the Moscow Mule’s vodka for the richness of bourbon.
And thus the Kentucky Mule was born: a refreshing, layered, flavorful, deliciously decadent drink that embodies pretty much everything that is good about the Mule cocktail format. And, just like the original drink that spawned it, it’s meant to be served in its copper mug. Sure, it’s entirely possible that this practice that was born out of the need to dispose of a surplus of copper rather than to try to keep the drink at a certain temperature, but tradition is tradition, right?
Just like the Moscow Mule, the Kentucky Mule went through a period of intense popularity before starting to fade a little from public consciousness; however, both drinks are in the midst of a comeback as perfect summery cocktails.
Since vodka is largely flavorless, many prefer the boldness of the Kentucky Mule’s bourbon taste, and thus the variation is on its way to overtaking the original in terms of popularity. And, since it’s a simple, straightforward cocktail with only three main ingredients, it tends to be healthier and less overwhelming than the sugary, overcrowded alternatives (roughly 160 calories per 6 oz serving).
Best Bourbon for Kentucky Mule
In the spirit of authenticity, in order for this to be a true Kentucky Mule we want to ensure that it is made with bourbon made in Kentucky. What brand comes immediately to mind when you think of Kentucky bourbon? It's most likely Jim Beam, one of the most famous brands of bourbon in the world. A very traditional product which has been made with the same exact secret formula since the late 1970s, Jim Beam is most people's default go-to when it comes to Kentucky bourbon, and thus the most common bourbon used in Kentucky Mules.
Other famous brands are Maker's Mark, a world-renowned small-batch distillery; Bulleit, a bourbon maker characterized by its high rye content; and, of course, Old Crow, which is a more budget-friendly alternative made by the same distillery that produces Jim Beam.
Below is the classic recipe for the Kentucky Mule.
Kentucky Mule Recipe
- 1.5 oz bourbon
- 6 oz ginger beer
- The juice of 1 lime
Add ice to a copper mug (yes, you can skip the copper mug, but part of the fun of drinking one of these cocktails is the presentation). Pour your bourbon over the ice, add lime juice, and fill up the glass with ginger beer. Note: it is possible to substitute the ginger beer for ginger ale; however, this will give you an entirely different flavor with a much milder ginger kick.
Also, ginger beer is to taste. If you like more of a bourbon taste, add less; if you like a sweeter drink, add more!
One of the selling points behind this cocktail (and one of the reasons why it’s a favorite for cocktail enthusiasts at home) is how easy it is to put together. Not only is the ingredients list made up of just three elements (if you leave out “ice”), but the process of putting them together is extremely straightforward and simple.
The quality of the ingredients and the way the different flavors mash together all contribute to a truly fantastic drinking experience. As long as you stay fairly close to those basic ingredients and preparation, you’ll be able to make this delicious and satisfying drink.
Of course there are variations on this basic recipe -- as we said, there are dozens of types of “Mules” that have developed as the recipe has been passed around. One of these variations is referred to as an Irish Mule, and it is actually fairly close to the Kentucky Mule in terms of taste and character. Care to hazard a guess as to what makes and Irish Mule different from a Kentucky Mule?
If you guessed “replace bourbon with Irish whiskey”, then you’ve got it! As has probably become clear by now, all that needs to happen to transition from one type of Mule to another is that you swap out the base spirit for a different one.
In the case of the Irish Mule, it stays fairly close in character and flavor profile to the Kentucky Mule (after all, bourbon and whiskey are cut from a similar cloth, the main points of difference being the whiskey’s comparative smokiness vs. bourbon’s sweeter notes). Both drinks add something different to the original Moscow Mule recipe, which features vodka as the spirit base.
Below is the recipe for the Irish Mule.
Irish Mule Recipe
- 2 oz Irish whiskey
- 6 oz ginger beer
- The juice of 1 lime
Add ice to a copper mug. Pour your Irish whiskey over the ice, add lime juice, and fill up the glass with ginger beer.
Note: just like with the other Mule variations, it is possible to substitute the ginger beer for ginger ale; it will result in a very different tasting drink, but this will come down to personal preference. Also, play around with the amount of ginger beer you add! You may want to try to bring the whiskey taste to the forefront by cutting back on the ginger beer, or vice versa.
Is the Irish Mule better than the Kentucky Mule? This is a complicated question to answer because it will depend entirely on personal preference, coming down to how you feel the flavors of the ginger beer mesh with the spirit of choice. We’ve found that the Irish whiskey’s smokier, darker flavor creates a really stimulating contrast with the brighter notes of the lime juice and ginger beer. This juxtaposition provides an added layer of depth to what is already a surprisingly full-bodied cocktail experience.
It might also just come down to the occasion. Kentucky Mules would be better suited for a casual get-together that’s not tied to any one event or time of year. But if you’re hosting a raucous Saint Patrick’s Day get-together, Irish Mules are naturally the way to go, and their relative obscurity (at least in comparison to the wildly ubiquitous “green beer”) will provide you with a few extra credibility points in the eyes of your peers. That is, if your peers are cool enough to be aware of it in the first place.
The Tennessee Mule: Another Variation
Yet another variation of this drink is the Tennessee Mule, which has also picked up a fair amount of steam.
If an Irish Mule replaces bourbon with Irish whiskey, then you might imagine that a Tennessee Mule replaces the spirit with whiskey produced in Tennessee.
Tennessee is famous for its whiskey production, the most well-known and globally celebrated brand of which is easily Jack Daniels. As a result, this is the most commonly used spirit of choice for the Tennessee Mule. Now you see the level of granularity we get into when discussing the various Mule variations.
So, there you have it. A brief history of the Kentucky Mule, and how to make the best out of this super-simple, super-straightforward, but truly excellent drink. Do yourself a favor and get those copper mugs. It really kicks the entire operation up a notch.