Moscow Mules have become so popular at Me & Billy in downtown Davenport that co-owner Mary Collins said customers keep stealing the copper mugs they’re traditionally served in.
But, in the past week, the signature cocktail made with vodka, ginger beer and lime has been stirring up controversy for a darker reason.
“Moscow Mules could be slowly poisoning you” is just one of several headlines that have popped up in national media outlets since Iowa’s Alcoholic Beverages Division released a July 28 news bulletin publicizing concerns about serving alcohol in copper mugs.
“Iowa, as well as many other states, has adopted the federal Food and Drug Administration’s Model Food Code, which prohibits copper from coming into direct contact with foods that have a pH below 6,” the bulletin stated. “This means that copper mugs that have a copper interior may not be used with this beverage.”
Vinegar, fruit juice and wine all have a pH below 6. As does a Moscow Mule.
Moscow Mule mania ensued at the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, based in Des Moines, where spokesman David Werning has fielded “higher than usual interest” from the media.
Publications such as The Washington Post, The New York Post and Business Insider as well as “The Today Show” have referenced the bulletin.
“Lo and behold, the world now thinks Iowa is banning copper mugs and Moscow Mules,” Werning said. “That’s just not the case.”
Some information within the bulletin got lost amidst the buzz, he said, that should quell worries about the cocktail’s ties to food poisoning.
Only cups or mugs lined with copper on the inside are prohibited, and Werning has been told by the Iowa Restaurant Association that it’s “nearly impossible” to find mugs with copper interior lining. Most establishments offer mugs lined with nickel or stainless steel.
That’s because FDA regulations that prohibit copper mugs from coming into direct contact with acidic foods have been around since at least 1997.
“I’ve seen this referred to as a new law or new restriction, when it’s been around a long time,” Werning said. “How this got to where it is is a mystery.”
At Me & Billy, copper mugs and Moscow Mules are safe, according to Collins.
“They don’t have copper on the inside, and that’s what the issue is,” she said, adding that she purchased the downtown Davenport’s mugs at a nearby Hy-Vee store. “I don’t even think they sell 100 percent copper mugs because they’re so expensive.”
The expense deterred the team at Mississippi River Distilling Co.’s Cody Road Cocktail House, from buying copper mugs, although the LeClaire establishment offers its own take on the cocktail — called Mississippi Mules — made with Green Tree Brewery ginger beer and the distillery's brand of vodka or rye whiskey.
“We serve them in tall glasses, which we’ve gotten comments about,” Ryan Burchett, co-owner of the distillery said. “People say, ‘Ah, man, you don’t have the copper mug. The Moscow Mule is a simple drink, and it's become popular because of the copper mug.”
“I would think the alcohol would get you before the copper,” he added.
Copper mugs also are in the clear at Barrel House’s five locations, where Moscow Mules are “the lifeblood of our cocktail menu,” said Abraham Blair, director of operations.
“Of course, people started talking about it,” Blair said of the bulletin and media coverage that followed. “It sparked everyone’s interest.”
It wasn’t news to Blair, a level two sommelier and cicerone.
“I’m a big beverage nerd,” he said. “So I always knew you don’t want to poison people with copper.”