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  • Writer's pictureFeruzan B

The Gibson : The Martini's pickled cousin

Updated: Apr 6, 2023

In a world where The classic dry Martini is considered the king of cocktails, one would say in this day and age, The Gibson is the eccentric sibling who makes for some interesting news once in a blue moon...

In this blog, I aim to break down the cocktail and offer some insights that helped my curiosity over the subject.

The What -

What is the Gibson ?

Tis a classic dry style martini with pickled onions for a garnish. Usually two.

Normally you would make it with a classic london dry gin or if you feel bougee, some of the unique contemporary styles also has a lot to offer. Some people make it a wetter version with more vermouth (usually lighter bodied vermouth with a citrus undertone) , or even a dirty version, with a bit of the pickle brine (I personally love those).

Now with the garnish, as far as I know this is the only martini served with an even number. Usually it is considered bad luck in the martini lore. So I did some basic research (a quick google search) and found out some saucy details on why we use two pearly onions for this drink. It's thanks to some famous artwork by Charles Dana Gibson ; the Gibson girl (1890s). Notoriously famous as the fictional depiction of what a perfect woman of the age looks like. The world remembers her with whimsical, fluffy, bouffant hair and accentuated curves with a tiny tiny waist.

To further clarify, Mr. Gibson walks into a bar and asks the bartender to make him a martini. The bartender, Charley Connolly, was clearly a fan of his work and garnished his martini with 2 pickled pearl onions to represent the glorious bosom of his customer's artwork. (*insert joke about the male gaze*)

(disclaimer : this is the largely accepted version of a Gibson or the first instance of pickled onions in a martini. However some tidbits of history also point to onions being served with gin as a British custom since the early 18th century)

Some people would also be quick to point out that the Gibson was either created in the Player's club or the Waldorf Astoria Hotel (both in NYC) or the Bohemian Club in San Francisco. The Players & Bohemian clubs were famously established as a gathering for writers, actors and artists. Charles Dana Gibson became a member of the players club 1894 and was a frequent martini drinker. The Waldorf Astoria had a large influential customer base where some of our well known classic cocktails were created.

So there goes the first wrench in history as we know it. Until the records are made public, we accept the current romanticized information

The How -

How did the Gibson come to be ?

So normally, we would come to accept this version of the Gibson as the most acceptable one. However history would go on to show that it is not the first and definitely not the last. The problem is, that the surname "Gibson" is too damn popular and bartenders would probably go on to naming their new creations after their guests or venues. According to recorded history of the cocktail books, the Gibson was actually made with equal parts Gin and Dry Vermouth with no chance of any bitters. An article from Edward Townsend, the former vice president of the Bohemian club in San Francisco in 1898, clearly mentioned it with no garnish or bitters. The drink was supposedly named after Walter D.K. Gibson or Charles Dana Gibson ; both influential in their own rights. Made with Plymouth gin and French vermouth, stirred and served naked. The famous column writer Herb Caen also featured the onion-less Gibson in his writings about the local pubs In William Boothby's guide from 1908, A Gibson is equal parts English gin and French vermouth and sometimes garnished with an olive. It is also important to mention that bitters are explicitly mentioned to be omitted from this recipe. (no onions mentioned so far but the revised print of 1934 contains the Gibson recipe as a dry martini with a pickled onion)

Around, 1912 in another part of the world of Seattle, Washington, Judge Handford was an avid drinker who would order his martini with the pickled onion garnish. Such was the popularity that the whole town knew its as the Judge Handford martini.

In 1914, "Drinks" by Jack Straub also mentioned the 50-50 version with no garnish mentioned. The same for the "Ideal Bartender" written in 1917 which additionally featured the L.P.W (with 1oz. Old tom gin, 1/2 oz each of French and Italian vermouths served with a pickled onion) and the Onion cocktail (with 2 oz. Burnette's tom gin and 1/2 oz. Italian vermouth with a cocktail onion) . There is also a cocktail known as the yellow rattler which is a shaken martini with a muddled pickled onion in it. (quite sacrilegious by todays standards) but we wont get into that.

By 1922, The Gibson was mentioned in Cocktails; how to mix them by Robert Vermeire as a martini (equal parts Dry gin and Italian vermouth with orange bitters) garnished with a pickled onion, peculiarly mentioning that it was a popular drink in Yokohama, Japan.

In 1931, The Old Waldorf Astoria bar days by Albert Stevens Crockett, credits their Gibson to Billie Gibson; a well known persona in sports and fights. The timeline is very close to Charles Dana's Players club encounter, the Waldorf Astoria's official book in 1935 with 2 versions of a Gibson cocktail. One with Plymouth gin served with an orange peel) and the other with dry tom gin served with a lemon peel) . Both had the 50-50 serve with bitters omitted.

By 1948, David A. Embury proclaimed the Gibson as a dry martini with a pickled onion, so dutifully follow it to this day.

The Why -

Why the pickled onion ?

We live in a simple world where the martini is often judged by the gin to vermouth ratio and differentiated by its garnish.

I will not delve into the territory of what makes the perfect dry martini as. We thankfully live in a world where there is not shortage of a variety of gins or vermouths (or even aromatized wines) to play with. Unfortunately, for my favorite martini variation, the unlively jar of cocktail onions from the supermarkets leave very little to imagination.

Heck, even cocktail cherries got an upgrade when Luxardo starting charging25$ (1300 INR on amazon) for jar. It is highly appreciated, but leaves me feeling a bit peckish for a cocktail onion upgrade.

However pickled onions were all the rage. Since the English empire days, gin has always

been a drink of choice. Often with indulgent drinking, people would feel the same kind of hunger that makes me crave for an entire KFC bucket after a night of drinking. However pubs were not the best bet for food and all they would have that was safe even to eat, were pickles.

You would find a range of pickles in pubs ranging from stinky eggs, oysters, fish to mild ones like radishes and onions. Onions were also consumed by many as a palate cleanser between heavy meals or alongside a glass of gin in England.

By the late 1800s, American laws made it compulsory for bars to serve food as well. And as a small town owner/bartender/bouncer/accountant/waiter/cleaner, you couldn't be a cook too. But you could store something to munch on just like the olden days; a pickle. Many roadside sellers would also crowd the entrances just before closing time to satisfy the hunger pangs of the boozed up clientele.

Walter DK Gibson in the 1890s was also credited to eating onions with his Gibson, simply because he thought they prevented colds in the Bohemian Club. Another stockbroker in 1964, Walter Campbell Gibson, who would frequent the Knick, skeptically noted this Gibson’s assertion that he originated the drink at the Ritz Hotel in Paris.

There is also the tale of the State Department’s Hugh Simons Gibson: Hugh allegedly liked to join the boys for martinis at the Metropolitan Club, but he didn’t like drinking as much as they did, and he didn’t feel comfortable just saying no, either. His solution was to switch to water after the first round, and he brought in the onion as a safeguard on the con—as a way to mark the drink as his alone, warding off anyone who might accidentally grab the wrong glass. The Hugh Gibson story points us toward innumerable other myths starring negotiators who want to keep clear heads while hiding their hands. These urbane legends figure the Gibson as a son of deceit.

It wouldn't be too long before modern bars stocked up on the least offensive pickle they could get ; the pickled pearl onions. it looks so clean and simple while being dainty and elegant. No wonder Margo Fanning could easily chug 3 glasses as she hosted an elite party and sassed her way through her guests (All about Eve, 1950)

The only way we can upgrade this garnish is play around with a pickle for the Gibson.

My current project is to find the perfect pickled garnish henceforth, just as Edward Townsend romantically made it his spiritual goal in life.

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Homemade pickled onions with spices and herbs
Homemade Pickled Onions


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