I’m going to begin the investigation into Martini Variants with the simplest one there is – the Gibson. The only difference between the Gibson and the Dry Martini is the garnish. While a Dry Martini may be enhanced by olives or a lemon twist, the Gibson is embellished by cocktail onions on a stick. That’s it.
This raises a couple of valid questions:
First, how can such a simple change of garnish be considered a “variant” when the Dry Martini already has a choice of garnish?
Second, why am I bothering to write a post on this?
To answer the first question, I have come across some convincing arguments that the Gibson was the original Ultra Dry Martini. Back when Martinis used more vermouth and were often served wet, the Gibson was made using just the barest hint of vermouth. And was then distinguished from regular Martinis by its unmistakable garnish.
However, as tastes changed over time, all Martinis became drier until the standard method of making one was identical to the way a Gibson was made. Yet for legacy reasons the Gibson remained an officially recognized Martini Variant. Instead of simply disappearing into history.
To me this seems a reasonably convincing argument. It used to be much more different from the standard Martini style of the time, but no longer is.
Still, this doesn’t answer the second question. Why write a full post on this frankly minor variant rather than simply adding a footnote to the Dry Martini post? The answer is because of all the interesting stories, legends and anecdotes surrounding the Gibson. These are fascinating.
Like with many a classic cocktail, no-one knows for sure who created the Gibson and when. But whereas the competing claims for cocktail creation are usually all about boring names and dates, here we have proper anecdotes. They can’t all be true and maybe none of them are, but better not to judge them by accuracy but by whether they make you smile.
My favourite story revolves around a (likely apocryphal) American diplomat named Gibson posted in Paris pre-WWI. He was a teetotaller, yet given the diplomatic scene of the day could hardly be seen at the various embassy parties without a drink in hand. It would have been considered a serious faux pas. His solution was to carry around a martini glass filled with water. But to distinguish his glass from others he placed in it a couple of small white onions on a cocktail stick. Problem solved.
Unfortunately for him, he turned out to be something of a trend setter. After one of his visits a craze swept the diplomatic world for garnishing their Martinis with what came to be known as cocktail onions. Something about the vinegar tang appealed to that crowd. And perhaps a desire to be fashionable. After all, if this American diplomat takes his Martinis that way, that *must* be what they’re doing in Manhattan these days.
The result was that the next time he attended one of these parties he mistook his glass for another…and got extremely drunk. Never a good thing for a diplomat to do…
Another story attributes the creation of the Gibson to Charles Dana Gibson. A cartoonist (of a sort) during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was best known for his racy drawings of women. These were featured in all the glamour mags and were comparable to iconic photographs of supermodels in the modern era.
One version has him simply challenging a bartender to improve upon the Martini recipe and this being the result. Another that he was very particular about his Martinis and came up with the variant himself.
But my favourite version is that the cocktail was named not after him but after those iconic, well endowed “Gibson Girls” he was so famous for drawing. I suppose that after a couple of Gibsons a pair of cocktail onions lined up on a stick might start to look like the physical attributes of some of his girls. Though probably not so much when you’ve sobered up the next day…
Either way, actually making a Gibson is very easy. Fill a mixing glass with ice and pour a small quantity of dry vermouth over it. Stir for about 15 seconds then discard the vermouth, leaving behind the vermouth-coated ice cubes. Then add a generous double shot of a high end premium gin and stir for another ~ 45 seconds. Strain into a martini glass.
So far you’ve made a Dry Martini. To convert it into a Gibson, simply garnish it with a pair of cocktail onions on a stick. These are often stored in vinegar as they are pickled onions. So you may choose to wash some of the vinegar off them before addition. Or not, to taste.