How Did the Moscow Mule Start? Smirnoff Has a Tale to Tell

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Sometimes, great marketing is all about timing, like the confluence of events that led to the creation of the Moscow Mule.

The cocktail, which is surging in popularity, owes its origins to three people coming together to solve three very different problems, according to a new Smirnoff campaign celebrating the 75th anniversary of the drink.

It began in 1941 in Los Angeles when John Martin, whose company had the rights to the Smirnoff brand, met with Jack Morgan, owner of the Cock'n Bull pub on Hollywood's sunset strip. Mr. Martin was struggling to sell Smirnoff to American drinkers who favored brown spirits. And Mr. Morgan was having a hard time selling ginger beer when most people preferred ginger ale. So the two men combined Smirnoff and ginger beer together, according to Smirnoff's version of events. They put it in a copper mug because Mr. Morgan's girlfriend, Ozeline Schmidt, had inherited a copper factory from her father.

But the concoction might have never made it out of Hollywood if it weren't for some hustle on Mr. Martin's part. He traveled to bars across the country pitching the drink and snapping photos of bartenders with the cocktail. He then showed the photos to the next bartender he visited, according to Smirnoff. It was viral marketing, 1940s style. Why they called it the Moscow Mule remains a bit of a mystery, but as speculated in the ad, it might be because the drink has a "kick" to it. The agency on the campaign is 72andSunny.

The ad includes a video of Mr. Martin telling the story that Smirnoff owner Diageo unearthed in its archives. The footage lends some credibility to the tale.

"We know that people in general, millennials in particular, they want brands to be authentic, and this gives us the opportunity to be as credible as possible," said Jay Sethi, Smirnoff's marketing VP.

But like a lot of liquor lore, there remains some mystery about the exact sequence of events that led to the drink. In a 2007 article, a Wall Street Journal reporter gave more credence to a version of the tale credited to Morgan's head bartender, Wes Price. He said cases of Smirnoff "sat fallow in the cellar, crowded against the dusty jugs of ginger beer that Morgan had ordered in an earlier fit of misguided enthusiasm," the Journal reported, until Mr. Price created the Moscow Mule as a way "to get rid of a lot of dead stock."

And "It caught on like wildfire," the Journal quoted Mr. Price saying.

Smirnoff's new campaign video will get paid digital support, including on Facebook. As part of the campaign, Smirnoff next week will host a 1940s-inspired event in Los Angeles. Diageo will also run a "Moscow Mule Copper Truck Tour" that includes a vintage delivery truck equipped with a 1940s-era bar. It will make stops at food events around the country.

The campaign comes as the Moscow Mule -- made with vodka, ginger beer and lime juice -- has emerged as a popular choice at bars. Moscow Mule menu placements increased 60% in 2015, accounting for 7% of all cocktail orders last year, according to a New York Times article in July citing data from GuestMetrics, which tracks bar and restaurant trends.