Folk-mixology and the Gibson
Folk-mixology and the Gibson
by Andrew “the Alchemist”
Folk-etymology is the set of popular (and often incorrect) assumptions or beliefs about the origin of specific words. The ancient Greeks have left us their musings of plausible, and often-entertaining, explanations of the origins of some of the words in their language. Modern linguistic science has proven many of those accounts incorrect. Where ancient Greek folk-etymology often went wrong was to begin with the then-current sense of a word and project it backwards.
I would say that folk-mixology is the set of popular (and often incorrect) beliefs about the origin of specific drinks and their names. Where folk-mixology often goes wrong is to begin with the current idea of a drink and project it backwards. I am often surprised at how difficult it can be to read the recipe for a seemingly-familiar drink in an old bartending book without projecting my current concepts onto it.
Take the Gibson, for example. Most bar professionals will have heard that it is a “Martini with an onion.” Here we dive headfirst into folk-mixology. The earliest recipe for the Gibson garnishes the drink with nothing or, optionally, an olive. Other early Gibsons are garnished with citrus twists. It took decades to get the onion into the drink. It is certain that the Gibson was not created as a ‘Martini’ with an onion.
Once the reader believes that the onion is central to the Gibson’s identity, old recipes that do not fit this bit of folk-mixology can be almost-subconsciously glossed over. Many of us have the bad habit of reading just for ingredients and not paying close attention to garniture or proportion or other information.
As an exercise let us study the origins of this drink to more clearly determine what the original irreducible identity of the Gibson really is.
The earliest Gibson recipe in a major source that I could find is in the 1908 edition of William Boothby’s book The World’s Drinks. In it, he lists the “Gibson Cocktail” (sic) with his own source line, “á la Martin Raggett.” He then gives the following instructions:
Into a small mixing-glass place some cracked ice, half a jigger of French vermouth and half a jigger of dry English gin; stir thoroughly until cold, strain into a cocktail glass and serve.
Note.-No bitters should ever be used in making this drink, but an olive is sometimes used.
(In the interest of clarity, it should be known that “French vermouth” always means dry vermouth and that the traditional American, pre-prohibition jigger is an amount of two fluid-ounces. The pre-prohibition standard was to make mixed drinks with all liquor(s) in it totaling two fluid-ounces.)
Notice that there is no onion in the 1908 Gibson.
One can never be sure that any given drinks writer of yore was not somehow out of step with the rest of the bartending community, or that a simple error was not made in the writing or printing of a book. Therefore, a survey of other old sources is called for.
The chronologically-next Gibson recipe that I have access to is found in Jacques Straub’s 1914 book entitled Drinks. The edition I have is the currently-available reprint of the 1948 reprint. Straub presents the “Gibson Cocktail” (sic) as being:
½ jigger French vermouth
½ jigger dry gin
Stir, strain and serve.
Again, notice that no onion is indicated.
Knowing that it is possible that one writer used the other as a source, further survey is called for.
The chronologically-next Gibson recipe I found was from the pre-prohibition material in the Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book. This book was written by Albert Crockett and published in 1935. The bulk of the recipes, however, came from the bar book compiled and used in the bar of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel before prohibition. Crockett suggests that they were “pre-war,” and would then be earlier than entry of the United States into the First World War in 1917.
Crockett states that he re-arranged the drinks “alphabetically, and in two general classes.” I suspect that the pre-prohibition bartenders at the hotel had arranged the drinks by type. I am saddened that Crockett’s post-prohibition, alphabetical approach has destroyed some precious evidence of how pre-prohibition drinks were actually thought of by their practitioners. Luckily, we have other more intact sources.
There is no evidence that Crockett significantly altered the recipes themselves. We can assume that, in the bar of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, the Gibson was:
One-half French Vermouth
One-half Dry Tom Gin (Stir)
Squeeze Lemon Peel on top
I believe that this recipe was jotted down rather early, since the bartender seems to have still thought of old tom gin as the default gin. Notice that he calls the dry version “dry tom gin,” instead of just “gin” or “dry gin” or “London dry gin.” But, more importantly, notice the lack of an onion.
The very next drink in the Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book (as we have it) is the “Gibson No. 2.” It is given as:
One-third French Vermouth
Two-thirds Plymouth Gin
Orange Peel on top
This recipe is probably later that the previous one, since it is “number two,” is made with Plymouth dry gin and has twice as much gin as vermouth. It would still have been jiggered to two-fluid-ounces, with one-and-one-third fluid-ounces of the gin and two-thirds of a fluid-ounce of the vermouth.
Notice that even in the “number two,” there is no onion.
The next major source I found the Gibson in was the Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book (sic) from 1930:
½ French Vermouth
Shake well and strain into cocktail glass.
Squeeze lemon peel on top.
Again, we have no onion.
Also from 1930, is the earliest source I could find that garnishes the drink with an onion. In that year, “Jimmy of Ciros” wrote that the Gibson was “the same as a Martini Cocktail but is served with a small white onion.” It took decades for the Gibson to be exclusively described as the drink thought of today. Even after 1930, other sources continued to publish Gibson recipes garnished with citrus twists.
So, that leaves us with the question of what originally made the Gibson unique. If you read the old books, you will find dozens and dozens of drinks with their own unique names that many people today would just call a “gin Martini.” The fact is that the Martini Cocktail was just one of them. It was made of equal parts tom gin and sweet vermouth with additive bitters (in 1891 Boothby indicated Angostura aromatic, in 1895 Kappeler indicated orange, and in 1908 Boothby had switched to orange) and garnished with a twist of lemon peel.
But back to the Gibson – what did make it unique? Boothby’s might be the earliest extant recipe for any drink calling for dry gin, dry vermouth, dilution and no bitters that is garnished with an olive. If you remember Boothby’s recipe for it, he wrote, “No bitters should ever be used in making this drink…”
I think it is fair to assume that many pre-prohibition drink recipes that seem to almost be cocktails, except that they are lacking bitters, may have been commonly made with bitters anyway. I direct your attention to the drink called the “Thanksgiving” in the pre-prohibition Waldorf-Astoria material. The recipe states:
One-half Italian Vermouth
One-half Tom Gin
Piece of Orange Peel
This recipe suggests that the bartenders needed to be stopped from putting bitters in the drink. Even though the Waldorf-Astoria material does not seem to have explicitly forbidden adding bitters to the Gibson, Boothby already had in 1908.
Of all the drinks that seem to be cocktails from pre-prohibition sources, the only ones that I am aware of for which there is explicit instruction to omit bitters are the Thanksgiving, Narragansett, and the Gibson.
In addition to Boothby’s explicit omission, no recipe from any source adds bitters to the Gibson. The early sources do not agree on the garniture. Boothby indicated an olive, while most of the other early sources that came after him chose lemon peel.
At around the same time that Boothby published the recipe for the Gibson, literature indicates that people had begun to ask for a ‘dry Martini,’ which would contain dry gin and dry vermouth (instead of the sweeter versions of each that are contained in the original Martini Cocktail). Even though unique names were in use for such a drink (Dewey Cocktail with lemon twist – Good Times Cocktail with olive), the ‘Martini’ name stuck to any cocktail of gin and vermouth. The name even stuck when the bitters were omitted, making it identical to the Gibson. At some point after the so-called ‘Martini’ became identical to the original Gibson, the two names came to be used only to indicate different garniture.
But, for the first decades of its life, the lack of bitters seems to have been much more important to the irreducible identity of the Gibson than whatever it was garnished with. This we can be more sure of than its namesake. I can live with that. I would prefer to learn something about the inherent identity of a drink, while not knowing its namesake, than the other way-around.
It could be said that the common, un-bittered, so-called ‘Martini’ with an olive is really just a 1908 Gibson (even though in drier proportions). Likewise could be said about the vodka version being a Vodka Gibson.