So what exactly is a mule cocktail?
If you’ve ordered a cocktail in a copper mug at a bar, you already know what a Moscow mule is. What you might not know is that there’s an entire family of mule cocktails — and they’re not all made with vodka.
What they have in common is a single ingredient, and that’s ginger beer.
Sam Halhuli, owner and head barkeep of The Mule Tavern on South Tacoma Way, has not only the most thoughtful list of mules in the city, but he also makes the most assertive fresh ginger beer you’ll find in Tacoma.
Half his cocktail menu features mules. Mules commonly are a combination of ginger beer and any kind of spirit, but frequently also contain some kind of citrus juice. (This family of drinks sometimes is referred to as bucks.)
Halhuli calls his handmade nonalcoholic fresh ginger beer simple to make, but complex to drink. First, there’s an aromatic whiff of ginger, quickly followed by rapidly building spiciness.
He developed the formula a handful of years ago in New Orleans, where the Northwest native ended up living and bartending for a few years. He filled a niche because few New Orleans bars were making their own ginger beer. He called his business Huhu’s Ginger Brew, a company he left in the hands of bartender friends in New Orleans. They still distribute the ginger beer to a number of bars.
In the early days, his ginger beer was more layered. “I added brown sugar, clove and cinnamon,” said Halhuli. He’d bring it to his bartending gig to have a bar mentor take a taste. They agreed it was good, but needed work.
“I started pulling things out. I pulled out the herbs and spices, then the brown sugar, then I started upping the ginger. The ginger kept going up and up and up until we liked it. That was the first iteration. It’s less ginger-y now,” he said.
He settled on a slightly less ginger forward version of his original recipe to appeal to a broader audience. “I was missing a large number of people,” he said. “I think I found the right balance. I rarely get people who say it’s too gingery.”
His ginger beer is made simply with fresh ginger, lemon juice, sugar and water. The portion of ginger in the formula is staggering. He juices 30 pounds of ginger to make 20 gallons of juice that he force-carbonates.
Halhuli opened The Mule Tavern on South Tacoma Way in July after finding the bar for sale in a Craigslist ad. He knew he wanted to return to the Northwest, but he knew he didn’t want to open a bar in Seattle, a city saturated with drinking establishments.
He thought Tacoma would be the perfect place to introduce his menu of mules. A natural name, of course, was The Mule Tavern, but Halhuli said he chose the name because his bar is sort of the hard-working mule of the cocktail universe.
While Halhuli’s menu ventures into the terrain of craft cocktails (a bar term that’s brutally overused), he’s proud of the gritty-around-the-edges bar he’s created in a district filled with interesting restaurants and bars (Ah Badabing Pizza, Edison City Alehouse, Patty’s Burgers, Stonegate Pizza and The Chili Parlor among them).
The bar doesn’t offer table service — necessary to keep the cocktails at modest prices — and has a collection of artwork that can be described as bachelor chic, as well as the funkiest collection of hanging lamps I’ve seen in Tacoma.
The cocktail menu is succinct, with five mule variations and five additional cocktails featuring classics such as an old fashioned (made properly with a solid square ice cube) and a traditional mai tai. No specialty cocktail is priced over $8, with most in the $6-$7 range. Sandwiches, salads and bar snacks also are served.
From the mule menu, a Moscow mule ($6) was the best version I’ve tasted in Tacoma, with a slap of ginger swirling through the lime and vodka. As to why it’s served in a glass not a copper mug, Halhuli said, “(Copper) ruins the flavor. I worked way too hard on the ginger beer to make it really tinny on the palate. It tastes better in a glass. It’s going to be the right temperature and flavor profile.”
A Dark and Stormy ($6) was deeply spicy, with caramel and brown sugar tones from the black spiced rum softening the ginger blow. The El Diablo ($7) offered the least assertive blast of ginger, most likely because of the competition from tequila and crème da cassis.
The Cardinal was outstanding ($8) and the one cocktail I ordered as a repeat. Halhuli said it’s a spin on a cocktail I’d never heard of: a Romanoff Cocktail. “The biggest difference is the way I make it. I changed the proportions,” he said. It’s a heady combination of gin, Cherry Heering (a Danish cherry liqueur), ginger beer, a heavy squeeze of lime and topped with a cherry. It’s a summery walk through the dead of winter and the kind of cocktail you’ll want to sip every season.
A Pimm’s Cup ($7) is Halhuli’s final mule, another summery concoction that is just as suitable on a patio as it is at a dive bar in Tacoma. Its base is Pimm’s No. 1, a syrupy liqueur, with lemon, ginger beer and an herbal bump of cucumber. “Part of the success of that drink is getting genuine cucumber flavor. We reduce cucumbers and make a syrup out of it,” said Halhuli.
Be sure to ask Halhuli if he has any specials because he’s known to create a new mule on a whim. And here’s good news for fans of his ginger beer. It’s now available for sale by the growler at the bar.