This iconic beauty is striking and distinctive, much like those who drink it. Essentially, a Gibson is a classic martini garnished with a pickled onion rather than olives or a twist of lemon. Read on to find out about its historical origins and how to make the best Gibson martini at home.
A martini is such a simple drink that the slightest change in its constituent parts can make the biggest of differences. Needless to say, the inclusion of a small, pickled cocktail onion creates a significant departure from a classic martini.
Historically a Gibson was simply a martini made without bitters, but over the years that has become the norm and the pickled onion became the standout aspect of the drink.
I love it when someone requests one. It shows me that they know about martinis and they know what they like.
The Gibson martini has clean geometry with the sharp straight lines of the glass plus the curve of the onion, giving it an understated boldness but also demure purity that belies a powerful and unapologetic drink.
It can be made with either gin or vodka. It is a savoury drink, combining botanicals with the sour-saltiness of the pickle. The hint of vinegar gives it a warm pungency but the drink remains ice cold.
How to make a Gibson Martini
Much of this process is the same or very similar to making a classic martini but it can actually be easier to assemble.
You will need
- A bottle of gin or vodka depending on your preference.
- A bottle of vermouth.
- A jar of pickled onions (not too large, preferably picked in white/clear vinegar).
- Martini glasses (ideally conical, 100-130ml / 3.4 – 4.4 US fluid ounces.
- Toothpicks / cocktail sticks.
- A freezer.
- At least six hours before you intend to drink, put your bottle of gin/vodka plus the relevant number of glasses into the freezer. FYI I keep my gin in the freezer permanently, which ensures that it is thoroughly cold (and always ready).
- Put your vermouth and jar of pickled onions into the refrigerator at the same time to make sure they cool down as well.
- When it’s time to serve, take the glasses and gin/vodka out of the freezer. They should be nice and frosty.
- Pour in vermouth to the glass. The amount you pour will depend on taste and is usually around 2-15ml or 0.5-3 teaspoons.
- Top up the glass with the gin or vodka. This should be around 80-120ml or 3-4 US fluid ounces, depending on the glass you are using and your personal preferences.
- Skewer a single pickled onion (or more if you prefer) onto a toothpick and use this to stir the drink, then drop it into the glass as a garnish.
- Serve, preferably with some nibbles. Note that you do not need to eat the garnish – especially if you are enjoying a romantic date.
As an optional extra, you can also add a teaspoon of the pickling vinegar to the drink for more pungency, just after you have poured the vermouth.
Like several martinis, there are different legends surrounding this one’s origins, many of them likely untrue.
One story tells of a businessman who would ply his potential business partners with martinis, but paid the waiter to bring one extra martini glass for him that contained, not alcohol, but chilled water instead. He asked for it to be garnished with a pickled onion so that he could tell it apart from the others and stay stone cold sober while the others drank and presumably became more pliable in the terms of any contracts he wanted them to sign.
This story is not likely to be true, at least not as the origin of the drink. It has also been attributed to several different individuals over time, all likely to be false – but it is a good story nonetheless, and a potential heist ploy for any of our more entrepreneurial readers.
Some people believe that the drink was first, or at least officially created at San Francisco’s Bohemian Club in 1898, where it was named after one of two patrons, businessman Walter DK Gibson or illustrator Charles Dana Gibson.
Walter DK Gibson reportedly liked his martinis without the bitters, and was one of the potential inspirations of the chilled water business story above, whilst Charles Dana Gibson is said to have ‘inspired’ the inclusion of the pickled onion.
Charles Dana Gibson leaves an additional legacy, for he was famed for his illustrations of women, accentuated with the zeitgeist of La Belle Époque and sexism of ideal beauty standards.
These women had S-shaped figures, with slim, often corseted waists, ample curves, long necks and big hair. They were portrayed as feminine, voluptuous, fashionable, witty, sophisticated, educated and confident, but also fragile and competing for good partners, rather than being desiring independence.
They were known, of course, as ‘Gibson Girls’.
Perhaps one of the best references to both the Gibson girl and the drink itself comes from the 1950 film ‘All About Eve’ where Bette Davis sasses her way through line after line of timeless zingers.
Her co-star Celeste Holm plays Karen Richards who is described as a Gibson girl, before being handed one to drink while Bette Davis sinks two martinis in quick succession before blazing through the house, leaving a trail of acerbic and hilarious destruction in her wake and even drinking a third Gibson. Not even a young, adorable Marilyn Monroe is safe, but she graciously survives.
Note that Bette Davis does not eat the pickled onions in her Gibson martinis.
The Plausible Evolution
Here comes the most likely journey of the Gibson martini.
During the 1800s martinis were normally made with the addition of bitters. The Gibson was originally distinguished from those martinis because it did not include bitters. It was not until much later than the pickled onion was added as a garnish.
A recipe in 1908 states that a Gibson had no bitters but was served with an olive. A recipe in Tom Bullock’s 1917 book “The Ideal Bartender” called for no bitters in a Gibson, but no garnish either. Curiously, the book also gave a recipe for an onion cocktail which also had no bitters and essentially fell closest to what we drink today.
Eventually came David Embury’s 1948 book “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks” which included the recipe for a Gibson that called for a pickled cocktail onion and seems to have codified the drink in its current, modern form.
Bear in mind that even the classic martini has undergone significant change since its first inception, so the journey of the Gibson is not too dramatic.
However we got here, we can be grateful for the rich experimentation, culture and history that has resulted in the modern version of the Gibson martini. It is one of the best, and certainly a favourite of many.