At the turn of the century’s second decade, a confluence of two seemingly disparate events combined to produce both a marvelous fountain pen and a classic cocktail.
In 1912, two engineers – Heinrich Helm and Alessandro Marzotto – founded the Montegrappa Co. in the Bassano del Grappa area in Italy, named after a famous 1,775-meter mountain in Veneto, which was historically a bastion of Italian defense during World War I. Producing piston-filling writing instruments for private labels, the factory was close to the Villa Azzalin, which was converted to a field hospital during this conflict. Two celebrated writers, Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos, were volunteer ambulance drivers for the Italian Red Cross, and naturally became avid users of Montegrappa fountain pens. Hemingway’s own experience in the Italian campaign formed the basis of what would later be considered by some as the greatest novel he has written, A Farewell To Arms.
And in 1917, five years later, Vladimir Smirnov was forced to flee Moscow at the height of the Great October Socialist Revolution, the Bolshevik uprising that nationalized firms like his vodka company. Eventually finding himself in Poland, he re-established his business using the French spelling of his name – Smirnoff – which he later sold to a Russian immigrant who established the Smirnoff distillery in Bethel, Connecticut in the United States. In 1938, John Martin, CEO of spirits and condiments distributor G. F. Heublin Bros., would take over the vodka enterprise.
Like all cocktails, legends about their origins abound, and the Moscow Mule is no exception. Lore has it that in the early 1900’s, a Sophie Berezinski designed a copper mug for her father’s Moscow Copper Factory, but the largely impoverished Russian populace of that era could not afford the luxury of a lavishly handcrafted drinking vessel. So, armed with some 2,000 unsold copper mugs, Sophie travelled to the United States in 1939, settled in California, and hawked her stock from tavern to tavern.
Unsuccessful at first, she entered the Cock’n Bull Restaurant in Hollywood’s Sunset Strip one day, meeting owner Jack Morgan, who had been home-brewing his own ginger beer. He himself had found it difficult to persuade an American drinking public enamored with ginger ale to patronize his concoction. Sitting at the restaurant’s bar was Martin, the recent buyer of Smirnoff Vodka’s U.S. rights, who was up against a market which heavily favored whiskey and gin.
As myth would have it, the desperate trio’s creative stars were aligned in one moment of serendipity, suddenly discovering a mixed drink that involved vodka and ginger beer served in an ice-cold copper mug. The now iconic Moscow Mule cocktail was thus born. “Fortis fortuna adiuvat,” indeed, as Pliny the Elder intoned in A.D. 79, just before taking his fleet to investigate the Mt. Vesuvius eruption (or “Fortune favors the bold”).
Why the “Mule”? Because of its kick, according to Martin. (In the mixologist’s often archaic world, a “mule” or a “buck” is an alcoholic drink that has ginger ale or ginger beer as one of its ingredients.)
Fast forward to 2016. Montegrappa introduced its Fortuna Mule fountain pen, inspired by the cocktail which emerged from its previous Cold War popularity, and recently made a resurgence in the cocktail circuit. Elegant and contemporary in a quintessential cigar shape, the pen is crafted in mirror-polished copper with brushed silver appointments, a nib embellished with a traditional Montegrappa filigree, and a finial decorated with a metal emblem of the 1912 logo. The understated overall design contrasts quite nicely with the brand’s previous editions that had tended to be more intricate and elaborate. The pen’s copper surface is expected to tarnish with the writer’s constant use, and over time, develop a patina that is as distinct as the individual’s skin oils and their chemical reaction to the metal.
In creating the Moscow Mule cocktail above, I used the recipe recommended by French vodka distiller Grey Goose, which utilized their Le Melon flavored vodka as the base liquor. Highlighted by the ripe taste of the Cavaillon melon (which originates from a town in France with the same name), a fruit with a bright orange inner flesh dripping with a sweet syrup-like juice, it is perfect for this tipple. As it is, however, unavailable in the Philippines, I substituted the just as delectable Artic Vodka and Melon, a version produced in Saronno, Italy. Combining essentially one part of the flavored vodka with two parts of Bundaberg ginger beer and the juice from a lime wedge, and served on the rocks in a copper mug, the resultant aperitif is a refreshing intoxicant on a humid summer’s day. Quaffing that spirit whilst writing with a Montegrappa Fortuna Mule – whether a routine calligraphy exercise, or a passionate billet-doux to someone you admire – would truly be a real kick.
(A note to fountain pen enthusiasts who are also Materials Engineers: Because the Moscow Mule cocktail’s ingredients are acidic, the ensuing beverage has a pH (or Potential of Hydrogen) below 6.0. U.S. Food & Drug Administration guidelines disallow the use of copper and copper alloys for substances with pH levels below 6.0, as copper can be leached into the food or drink, a long-term exposure to which may result in liver failure, or even death. While the original mug of the Moscow Copper Factory was pure copper and potentially lethal,the Starbucks mug is, thankfully, made of stainless steel with an exterior copper plating.)