What's with That Onion?, or the Curious Case of the Missing Bitters

I am a big martini fan. A big part of that is the gin--I do love gin. But I also love vermouth. When I was in France I would often have a glass of dry vermouth to accompany my meals in lieu of wine. So when you put those two ingredients together, it is not surprising that I am going to like it. A smidge of orange bitters and the zing of fresh lemon oils--it is a winning combination. But this simple drink has brought about so much controversy. What is the perfect martini? I don't really believe there is one--I like what I like, you like what you like. For posterity, I like my martinis really wet, or really old-fashioned depending on your definitions, with a gin to dry vermouth ratio of 3 to 1 or even 2 to 1 sometimes. I guess that some might consider this close to the original martini recipes, but to me it's more important that I enjoy it than its pedigree.

And while the martini is perhaps the fussiest of three-element cocktails, I never would have guessed that a gibson could also be controversial. I always just assumed that once you swap out the twist or olive for a cocktail onion, BAM! you had a gibson. I use the martini ratio I enjoy, and that is the end of the story. But this is not so.* The controversy comes from the unlikeliest place--the bitters. When some of the first "dry" gin cocktails were entering the cocktail vernacular in the late 1800s, almost all of them included orange bitters. The first recipe I could find for the gibson, published in Boothby's World's Drinks and How to Mix Them (1908), absolutely prohibits the inclusion of bitters. Nothing is mentioned about the garnish at all. In fact in some recipes coming out the 1910s, a citrus garnish is preferred. Thus, originally a gibson was not a martini differentiated by garnish but instead by the absence of bitters. In a way it makes more sense--change an ingredient, change the cocktail. Garnishes do not count. Food for thought--could it be that the modern extra dry martini should not be called a martini at all, but an extra dry gibson?

So to celebrate this fact, here is one of my preferred "martinis," complete with onion garnish, perfect for a warm summer evening. Hell, it works on a cool summer evening as well. When choosing cocktail onions for a garnish, make sure you find ones that are crisp; many have mushy texture that will not do work in a chilled cocktail.

Not a Gibson (Martini with an Onion)

2 ounces gin
1 ounce dry vermouth
1 dash orange bitters

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into an chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a cocktail onion or two.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Halcyon gin, Dolin dry vermouth, Angostura orange bitters, and Sable & Rosenfield's tipsy onions.

* A big thank you to Wendy Miller for inspiring me to research what differentiates a gibson from a martini.

1 comment:

  1. http://www.alcademics.com/2008/03/sf-cocktail-his.html

    There we learned about the history of the Gibson cocktail, which was created in SF in the late 1890's. It was simply London dry gin and dry vermouth, without the orange bitters and garnish that defined a Martini. A Gibson with an olive was called a St. Francis Cocktail and popularized at the St. Francis Hotel. The Gibson eventually became the Martini, so to distinguish the old drink from the new martini they added a cocktail onion as in the Gibson we know today.