September 14 is the birthday of Charles Dana Gibson. Born in 1867, he was an American illustrator best known for his pen and ink drawings of the “Gibson Girls”, which practically defined feminine beauty in the U.S. from the 1890s through the early 20th century. The Gibson cocktail is sometimes alleged to be named after him so today that’s our Drink of the Day.
Gibson himself was a talented youth with an interest in art, and his parents enrolled him in New York City’s Art Student’s League where he studied for two years. He would peddle his pen and ink sketches, but his first commercial sale was in 1886 to Life magazine. That now defunct magazine had plenty of illustrations and cartoons, and Gibson’s work appeared weekly for more than 30 years.
The first Life publications expanded his reputation and his drawings appearing in all the major New York magazines, including Scribners, Harper’s Weekly and Collier’s. His wife and four her sisters, all renowned for their beauty, were a large part of his inspiration. He was married to Irene Langhorne, one of five daughters of railroad industrialist Chiswell Langhorne. Pro tip for young aspiring artists: it never hurts to marry well.
But enough of that and on to the drink. As usual for an old cocktail, several stories exist about the origin of the Gibson. This one is at least as contested as the Manhattan, which we just covered.
One theory is that Charles Dana Gibson challenged the bartender at the Players Club in New York, Charley Connolly, to improve upon a basic Martini. Supposedly Connolly responded by substituting an onion for the olive and calling it a day.
Others attribute the drink to San Francisco businessman Walter D.K. Gibson, who frequented the Bohemian Club in the 1890s. According to Al Gibson, his great-uncle Walter invented it as Gin and Dry Vermouth stirred together, without bitters, and garnished with an orange twist. Other versions of this tale say he included the onions in the belief that they helped prevent colds. Folks in the San Francisco Bay Area, first led by the late newspaper columnist Herb Caen, tend to be adamant that the Gibson was invented in San Francisco.
Another theory is that the Gibson after whom the Gibson cocktail was named was a California onion farmer, but this theory seems largely based on an 1857 article, before cocktails like this were really The Thing.
Finally, another story involves an investment banker named Gibson who would take clients out for the proverbial three martini lunches but had prearranged with the bartender to serve him a cocktail glass of cold water embellished with a cocktail onion to distinguish his drink and prevent others from picking it up. This is the same trick Roger Sterling in Mad Men used to land the GM deal while ordering his prospective client a double Jim Beam and getting him plastered.
The various theories seem to include nearly anyone of note having the surname Gibson. As usual, we’ll never really know unless some historian uncovers new and definitive information, but as far as we’re concerned at The Drunkard’s Almanac the Charles Dana Gibson story as good enough for our purposes because we like the Gibson cocktail as defined with the onion. And his story is the most credible one with a cocktail onion involved.
Like other drinks, the Gibson has evolved over time. The earliest published Gibson recipe we are aware of is as shown here, from William Boothby’s 1908 book, The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them. It’s just gin and dry vermouth, the driest Martini of that era in which Sweet Vermouth was the typical Martini ingredient. But it explicitly abolishes bitters from the recipe and doesn’t involve an onion.
So it’ unclear where the drink as we know it today came from, the first cockails named Gibson didn’t contain a pickled onion, nor is it clear when adding an onion became the defining touch. The first drinks called Gibson aren’t what we’re mixing today. Never bound to either linear thought or pure facts, we’re using the Charles Dana Gibson story and the recipe he apparently enjoyed in naming the Gibson our Drink of the Day.
- Mixing glass
- Nick and Nora or coupe glass
- 2 oz Gin
- 1 oz Dry vermouth
- Garnish: cocktail onions
- Optional: 2-4 drops of celery bitters
- Add Gin and Dry Vermouth to mixing glass.
- If you're feeling experimental and adventurous add a few drops of celery bitters.
- Add ice and stir to chill.
- Strain into pre-chilled cocktail glass.