Spirits

The Rise of the Modern Gibson

Bartenders in New York City, London, and Singapore are launching new riffs on the classic cocktail

The Walter Gibson. Photo courtesy of Pietro Collina at the NoMad.

Born at the turn of the 20th century, the Gibson is the Audi to the martini’s Mercedes, the Tag Heuer to its Rolex, a perfect example of the design principle to which uber-designer Raymond Loewy attributed his success—MAYA, or Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. A gin martini garnished with silverskin, or “pearl,” pickled onions, the Gibson is familiar enough to entice a martini drinker yet different enough to satisfy the adventurous. Nowadays, a good dozen of the world’s 50 best bars serve signature Gibsons, and acclaimed Gibson-inspired bars can be found in cities, like London and Singapore, that celebrate the cocktail. The Gibson is back—and bartenders haven’t been wasting any time putting their own spins on the classic.

The rising trend may have kicked off first at Dear Irving in New York City. Meaghan Dorman, the group beverage director, together with the head bartender at the time, Tom Richter, decided to update and feature the Gibson not long after the bar opened in 2014. They created a $17 Gibson with citrus-forward Tanqueray No. Ten that was softened not with extra-dry vermouth but with bianco-style vermouth from the producer Carpano. Dorman’s Gibson is a best seller to this day. It soars on the savory notes of that bianco vermouth—and its onion brine, which contains salt, coriander, and Champagne vinegar. “People know they’ll be getting a good onion at Dear Irving,” says Dorman. “A fear of sad onions was something we found deters potential Gibson drinkers.”

Next up was the two Gibson cocktails that were created at London’s Gibson Bar, which was founded by the multiple award–winning Marian Beke, who previously helmed Nightjar. The entire ethos of the bar, opened in November 2015, was inspired by its namesake cocktail with its savory brine. That savory quality of the brine is also incorporated into all of the other cocktails throughout the menu, in the form of chutneys, relishes, and ketchups. The first of Beke’s Gibson cocktails is a bargain at $14; it features a special-edition Copperhead Gin made especially for the Gibson Bar and a pickling spices–infused Mancino Secco dry Italian vermouth and is served with double-pickled onions and lemon zest. “We serve it with a jar of pickles to refresh your palate,” says Beke, “and Parmesan to balance the kick of the alcohol.”

The bar’s other Gibson is an altogether different beast—the whole cocktail consists of gin, vermouth, pickling spices, lemon zest, and onions left to macerate for 72 hours. The mixture is then redistilled in a rotovap to between 55% and 60% ABV. Beke sells this cocktail for $17 and says it’s a cocktail for the dry martini lover. He describes it as “an overproof, naked martini with the savory flavor of a Gibson.”

The Gibson cocktail
Photo courtesy of London’s Gibson Bar.

At almost the same time that Beke was opening his doors on London’s Old Street, another Gibson bar was opening on the other side of the world. The bar manager Aki Eguchi, a Japanese native who made his name with bars like Jigger & Pony and Sugarhall in Singapore, opened The Gibson Singapore. Eguchi was inspired to reinterpret the cocktail using local flavors. “In our view,” says Eguchi, “a guest who orders a Gibson cocktail at the bar is someone who really knows what he likes, has high standards, and rather peculiar taste. Thus we take this approach at the bar: Very high and particular standards, with unusual twists.” Eguchi’s house Gibson now features the Japanese gin Roku with a special sake vermouth. The drink is served with delicate condiments—smoked quail’s egg, wasabi leaves, and pickled onion—that steer the savory-briny flavors that define a Gibson in new directions. He sells the cocktail for $17.

In New York City in September 2016, yet another Gibson came onto the drinks scene when the Walter Gibson appeared on the menu at The NoMad. It was a $32 serve for two people that was named after the NoMad wine director Thomas Pastuszak’s son, an infant at the time. The Walter was designed with full NoMad treatment: It contains Edinburgh Seaside Gin—which “gives it a wonderful saline minerality,” says NoMad’s East Coast bar director, Pietro Collina, who oversaw the development of the drink—as well as Old Raj Navy Strength Gin and Absolut Elyx Vodka.

“I wanted our Gibson to appeal to both gin and vodka martini drinkers,” says Collina. The spirits are combined with a sweet wine, as well as both extra-dry and bianco vermouths from Dolin, an apple eau-de-vie from St. George, and a bar spoon of pineapple gomme—all served premixed and prediluted in a wax-lined bottle that’s been in a freezer for about five days. And that’s not all. The drink comes with an assortment of pickles: onions in a sweet pickling sauce, carrots in cinnamon brine, fennel in coriander brine, and celery in fennel brine. It’s hard to imagine a better Gibson for the modern age.

Perhaps the most heartwarming Gibson story, though, is from a place where the cocktail never went away. The Four Seasons in midtown Manhattan was one of the spots where power-lunching was invented, and such lunches were often of the three-martini kind, so Gibsons never stopped being a popular order. After a 2017 overhaul by Major Food Group that saw the restaurant divided into The Grill, The Pool, and other spots, the bar director Thomas Waugh took the opportunity to elevate the Seasons’ standard Gibson to a creative level appropriate for the 21st century. The updated drink is a premixed and prediluted combination of Boodles Gin, which Waugh says he loves “for its dryness and its strength” and because it gives “less citrus, more savory” flavors; Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth; and a teaspoon of house-made onion brine—which Waugh does his damnedest to freeze. And how does this $20 cocktail go over with the tribe of true devotees of the Gibson, who kept ordering it, even through its darkest days?

“They love it,” says Waugh. “For them, Gibsons at The Grill are like coming home.”

Signature Gibson Recipes

The Gibson by Meaghan Dorman (Dear Irving, New York City)

2 oz. Tanqueray No. Ten gin
1 oz. Carpano Bianco vermouth
2 barspoons onion brine (with Champagne and apple vinegars)
Stir with ice.

Serve up with a pickled onion.

The Gibson by Marian Beke (The Gibson Bar, London)

2 oz. Copperhead Gibson Edition Gin
0.25 oz. Mancino Secco Dry Vermouth infused with pickling spices
Stir with double-frozen ice.

Serve in nickel-plated martini glasses. Garnish with 3 double-pickled onions (1 week in balsamic vinegar, 1 week in white wine vinegar) and lemon zest. Serve with jar of pickles and Parmesan cheese.

The Redistilled Gibson by Marian Beke (The Gibson Bar, London)

The above recipe, but all ingredients (gin, vermouth, pickling spices, onions, lemon zest) macerated for 72 hours then redistilled in a rotovap low-pressure distilling apparatus to between 55% and 60% ABV (110–120 proof).

The Gibson by Aki Eguchi (The Gibson Singapore)

1.5 oz. Suntory Roku Gin
0.25 oz. Japanese Sake Vermouth

Garnish with smoked quail’s egg, wasabi leaves, and pickled onion.

The Walter Gibson by Pietro Collina (The NoMad, New York City)

1 oz. Absolut Elyx Vodka
1 oz. Edinburgh Seaside Gin
0.5 oz. Old Raj Blue Navy Strength Gin
0.5 oz. Dolin Dry Vermouth
0.5 oz. Dolin Blanc Vermouth
0.5 oz. Moulin Touche 1994 (sweet wine)
0.25 oz. St. George Apple Brandy
Bar spoon pineapple gomme syrup

Premix and predilute, then freeze. Serve in a wax-lined bottle with pickled onions, carrots, fennel, and celery—and two glasses.

The Gibson by Thomas Waugh (The Grill, New York City)

3 oz. Boodles Gin
0.5 .oz Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth
Teaspoon house onion brine

Premix, predilute, and freeze.
Garnish with pickled onions.

Philip Duff owns the on-trade consultancy Liquid Solutions. He founded Holland’s first speakeasy bar—Door 74 in Amsterdam—and owns the award-winning Old Duff Genever brand. Duff has published articles in Drinks International, CLASS magazine, Imbibe UK, Mixology (Germany), Australian Bartender, and Reuters. He also serves as the educational director for Tales of the Cocktail and is a judge for the IWSR, the World’s 50 Best Bars, and the Spirited Awards. He lives in New York City with his wife, stepdaughter, and a crested gecko.

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