Martini Madness

Which Is a Better Garnish for Gin and Vermouth: An Olive or an Onion?
Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
March 14 2013 5:33 AM

Martini Madness

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Considering the Gibson: the martini’s urbane, elite, oniony relative.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

Across the Bay in The City, which is the way you talk about San Francisco if you live just outside it, people drink whatever has the quickest answer. The bleak, stylish bars off Montgomery Street are straight-faced about Gibsons, a more or less western and much ginnier version of the dry Martini, which is to say that a Gibson has almost nothing in it but cold gin, with an onion instead of an olive for the fussy oldsters.

—M.F.K. Fisher, “Martini-Zheen, Anyone?”, Gourmet, January 1957

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Fussiness—particularity, peculiarity, the exacting maintenance of a narrow standard of correctitude—is fundamental to the soul of the Gibson. Calling for a tiny onion in one’s drink is tantamount to pledging proud allegiance to an old-fangled orthodoxy. To order a Gibson is to issue a dapper command. The Gibson looks elite on several levels: Its flavor appeals to an aristocracy of taste—a sect within a sect that might, if pressed, locate the beauty of umami in the cocktail. Its socio-cultural tone tends toward the ritzy Episcopal. A good onion is hard to find, and the fact of the Gibson’s relative scarcity leads one to think that a bar where you can obtain one is more likely than usual to possess certain old-school values and thus, perhaps, charms.

Who invented the Gibson? Who didn’t? The gin-mill rumor mill has connected the drink with every Gibson in the Social Register. The most famous among them is the artist Charles Dana Gibson, falsely said to have received the inaugural cocktail after asking the man behind the bar at The Players to improve upon the martini. The 1964 New York Times obituary for stockbroker Walter Campbell Gibson, who died in his rooms at the Knick, skeptically noted this Gibson’s assertion that he originated the drink at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. And then there is 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 legend points us toward innumerable other genesis myths starring negotiators who want to keep clear heads while hiding their hands. These urbane legends figure the Gibson as a son of deceit.

All of the lies are highly intriguing, particularly because the earliest published recipes for the Gibson called for no garnish at all. A century ago, the Gibson sported neither an onion nor a reputation for stiffness; it was just one among many boring old martini-like compounds of gin and vermouth. But if we must attach the onion to a biography—if we must suppose that the cocktail as we know it sprang from the head of a namesake—then let’s please side with the family of Walter D.K. Gibson. Back when the fussy oldsters Fisher describes were still in short pants, W.D.K.G. was a member of the San Francisco Bohemian Club, that institution most famous for throwing an annual party combining the salient features of a Bilderberg conference and a skinny dip. His descendants attest that he “believed that eating onions would prevent colds.” Judging the veracity of that account, I find myself impressed by its being too dull to bother fabricating.

Eleven years ago, in a New Yorker piece titled “Dry Martini,” Roger Angell reminisced about suburban martinis in the 1940s and ‘50s and reported that “serious debates were mounted about the cool, urban superiority of the Gibson” as compared to “the classicism of the traditional olive.” At this writing, I find myself tempted to side with the Gibsonists: The olive after all is of course a fruit and an allium a vegetable, and the latter may well be a better fit for a savory libation—a truer expression of the martini ideal. And it seems meaningful that, as evidenced below, the Gibson was the favorite of some real heavy hitters—the English language’s wittiest booze expert, America’s pre-eminent food writer, 20th-century literature’s most imposing self-made myth.  Peel back the layers of the Gibson charisma by upvoting and downvoting the recipes below, the most popular of which will enter into Slate’s Martini Madness tournament. (Voting ends Sunday, March 17 at 6 p.m. EDT; tipoff is Tuesday, March 19.)