If it’s hard enough for the average person to order a Martini with vermouth, it’s understandable why a Martini with an onion is the least popular variation on the classic cocktail. And while this version, called the Gibson, doesn’t get much love these days—it should. Essentially a less briny Dirty Martini that’s garnished with an onion instead of an olive, the Gibson is a savory masterpiece.
Here, we attempt to find out what has kept the Gibson under the radar, how bartenders are reinventing the classic recipe, and when the cocktail is poised to make a comeback (hint: it already is). If you’re a real Martini lover take note: The Gibson is the Martini you should be drinking.
The Fundamental Difference Between a Gibson and a Martini
A Gibson has the same core ingredients as the classic Martini, but its garnish—a pickled cocktail onion—is singular to the drink. “While the garnish is the only differentiator, it makes all the difference,” says Katie Cruz, a bartender at Atomic Liquors in Las Vegas. “Once you add the onion, it takes the flavor to a completely new level than a traditional Martini.”
Jess Lambert, the head bartender of Vol. 39 in Chicago, agrees. “It gives the Martini a slight savory nuance that evokes an umami flavor experience.”
Why More Bars Don’t Serve Gibsons
Gibsons aren’t being served at most bars for two main reasons, which happen to feed off of one another: Not very many people walk into a bar and order a Gibson, so bars aren’t keeping cocktail onions in stock. And if you do happen to stumble upon a random bar that has a jar of cocktail onions in the back of the fridge, those onions are probably close to 50 years old and shouldn’t be consumed by mortals. “You definitely don’t know if the onion from that random jar will be delicious or if the Martini will be executed properly,” says Lambert.
Meaghan Dorman, the bar manager of Dear Irving and Raines Law Room in New York, feels that it’s actually the quality of the onion that keeps bars from serving the cocktail and patrons from ordering it. “I have found that commercial onions—which aren't usually pickled but preserved in a salty vermouth solution—are astringent in a Gibson; especially when paired with dry vermouth and London dry gin,” she says. “Many onions aren't that appealing to consume either, so I think the drink went out of style.”
How Bartenders Are Trying to Bring the Gibson Back
These three bartenders don’t just give great insight into the Gibson—they all serve their own modern interpretation of the classic. They’ve all found that the secret to changing how modern drinkers feel about the cocktail is by altering the fundamental component of the drink: the onion. “The Gibson’s entire identity revolves around that tiny cocktail onion, so we put a lot of effort into cocktail onions that we brine in-house,” Lambert says.
For her take on the classic, Lambert uses a vodka base, a half ounce of dry vermouth and a bar spoon of onion brine from their house made cocktail onions. “Again, it’s all about that tiny onion,” she says. “But the execution of the Martini is also key. It takes great care and attention to detail. The temperature, right ratio of spirit to vermouth, and dilution are all key factors in a great Gibson.”
At Dear Irving, Dorman has created one of the most eye-catching and tasty cocktail onions we’ve tried. Not only is she brining her own onions in-house, but she is also using a combination of ingredients that elevates the garnish. Dorman opts for a red pearl onion instead of a white one and uses Champagne vinegar, spices like coriander, and a touch of sugar for her brine. “I love seeing thought behind the onion,” she says. “But even carrot slivers, cornichons, cucumbers and other items I have seen pickled can really match a gin's botanical profile well. It's really interesting to see what people are doing with their garnishes,” says Dorman.
The Gibson at Atomic Liquors, which Cruz dubbed the Glass Onion, features manzanilla sherry (which gives it a distinct “dry nuttiness” according to Cruz), celery gin, a house-made pickle brine, and a dill sprig garnish to accompany the onion. “People have certain ideas of what a Martini is. They think it can be any fruity drink served up in a cocktail glass, or it’s just vodka shaken,” says Cruz. “In reality, it’s a cocktail with a lot of diversity. Whether portraying a unique vodka or gin, the variety of vermouth, or the amount utilized makes a huge difference. [We felt that] featuring a cocktail with those standard elements but with a twist reminiscent of a Gibson would help guests become more familiar with the cocktail and make it more likely that they order one.”
Will the Gibson Make a Comeback?
Even if bartenders are trying to elevate the cocktail onion—and the Gibson in turn—the question that still remains is whether or not anyone cares. The drink was popular enough at one point to make it into classic cocktail books and bar menus, so will these modern interpretations help to restore it to its former glory? The bartenders attempting to update and elevate the cocktail think so.
Dorman feels that while the savory flavor of cocktail onions (and savory cocktails in general) went out of fashion for a time, they are making a big comeback. “Recent improvements in commercial onions that are available and the interest of bartenders being selective about the onions they use—[as well as] the gin and vermouth combination—has increased the Gibson's popularity,” she says.
Lambert thinks the Gibson has always been waiting to be rediscovered, and that it already has a dedicated fan base. “We’ve seen over the last 15 years a huge resurgence of classic cocktails,” she says “A well-executed Martini (including the Gibson) is definitely one of them that is coming back on people’s radar. It really comes down to access to information. Thanks to the internet, we have a much more educated guest that shows up to the bar informed and curious.”
Cruz agrees. “Everything comes full circle, so as long as bars make a conscious effort to embrace, introduce and educate customers on the Gibson, I think it can make a comeback.”
How to Make a Better Gibson at Home
While it’s all about the onion, there are other ways you can make a better Gibson at home. First, make sure to choose a vermouth that pairs well with the flavor of the onion and its brine—preferably one that is more savory and vegetal like Noilly Prat or Vermouth Routin Dry. If you’re using gin, opt for something like Plymouth or Sipsmith that isn’t floral or citrusy. If you want to use vodka, grab a high-quality bottle that isn’t too potato heavy on the palate.
If you’re not dedicated enough to make your own cocktail onions from scratch, a simple hack is to buy decent quality cocktail onions from the store, dump them from the jar, wash them thoroughly with cold water in a colander, and re-brine them. We suggest using equal parts water and vinegar—try Champagne vinegar, rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar—with pickling spices like juniper, bay leaf and coriander (sometimes we even like to throw in a Thai chili for a little heat). It will take about a week for the onions to really taste like their new brine.