Friday, June 29, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Gibson

The Gibson is as simple as cocktails come, a Martini by any other garnish. So why spotlight it? Because it’s a bona fide classic that far too few people order, and because it’s one of the only drinks that, for good or ill, I prepare in my own way.

I. The History

The Gibson was created at New York’s famous Players Club and named in honor of the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson ... unless it was christened after a fight promoter named Billie Gibson. Except that the drink can actually be traced to a Gibson in San Francisco, where people liked their Martinis very dry. Only none of these versions have the signature pickled onion garnish. According to spirits historian Eric Felten, the first recorded instance of a cocktail matching the definition of a Gibson – gin, a little vermouth, onion – comes in a 1917 book by a St. Louis bartender, who called his concoction .... The Onion Cocktail. How did the Gibson handle get appended to it? It’s one of those lost in the mists of time type deals.

II. The Ratio

Eight parts of gin to one part of vermouth. I have no idea why I’m so stingy with the latter element in Martinis and Gibsons. I love dry vermouth, and use more of it in plenty of other drinks. Early Martini recipes split the ingredients 50/50; someday I’ll make Dale DeGroff’s Nick and Nora variation, which uses the 1930s standard of 3 parts gin to 1 part vermouth. But for some reason, 8:1 is my Golden Gibson Ratio.

III. The Preparation

Yes, I shake Martinis and Gibsons. Yes, stirring them is the traditional method. Consult any decent bartending guide and it will tell you that either approach is fine. “Bruising the gin” is a load of hooey.

I have my reasons for shaking them. I like my Martinis and Gibsons to be cold. I like seeing slivers of ice on the cocktail’s surface, waiting for a miniature Lillian Gish to stumble onto one. And I find there is a difference in taste. David Wondrich notes that a properly stirred Martini will have a “thick, silky” texture. Shaken ones have a crispness that I prefer.

IV. The Ingredients

Typically I don’t specify products in these posts. I am not a “brand ambassador,” mainly because none of you liquor company bastards have asked, and I think cocktails should be prepared without regard to labels. But in the case of the Gibson, I will make an exception. Two, to be precise.

A. The Bitters. That’s right, bitters. Don’t look so shocked. For decades bitters, typically orange flavored, were a staple ingredient in Martinis. I still make them that way, and might I recommend you try grapefruit bitters as well?

But in a Gibson, only celery bitters will do. The additional snap they provide complements the onion beautifully. It’s like a salad in a glass! I use Bitter Truth Bitters, and the people behind that label recently launched the Berg & Hauck line.

B. The Onions. It’s at the garnish level that your typical Gibson falls apart. Most cocktail onions are puny, calcified marbles, the taste so redolent of despair that they could only have been pickled in orphans’ tears. The first time Rosemarie and I ordered Gibsons we left the garnish to the very end, each essentially daring the other go first. Rosemarie finally took the plunge. She gasped, blinked furiously, pounded the table.

“How is it?” I asked.

“I think I just saw the Baby Jesus,” Rosemarie said.

Dissatisfaction with cocktail onions kept me away from the Gibson until Rosemarie discovered the McSweet brand. Crunchy and, well, sweet, these onions are so good I’d eat them even if they hadn’t been soaking in gin. They single-handedly brought the Gibson back into our regular rotation. Order a jar for yourself and tell me I’m wrong.

The Gibson

2 oz. gin
¼ oz. dry vermouth
2 dashes celery bitters

Shake (or stir, whatever, go ahead, be pedantic). Strain. Garnish with two onions.