Happy Hour History: The Gibson

Drink Features

History is full of lies. So, too, is cocktail history. There was no Mr. Boston. Dr. McGillicuddy never went to med school. Dean Martin drank apple juice onstage. Lies.

Calling the Gibson a full on lie is unfair perhaps. Still, the origins of this gin and vermouth-based cocktail are steeped in deceit. The recipe, birthed in the Gilded Age, first appears in William Boothby’s The World’s Drinks And How To Mix Them in 1908. Like its cousin the martini, both San Francisco and New York lay claim to the Gibson.

The New York story alleges the cocktail was named after illustrator Charles Dana Gibson at the Players Club. As the story goes, Gibson asked bartender Charley Connolly to make a variation on the martini. Connolly, a bartender who apparently gave zero shits, replaced the olive with an onion, and called it a day. Most consider this tale apocryphal, if only to punish Connolly for his lack of creativity.

Gibson the man, however, was the perpetrator of arguably an even more malicious deception as an innovator in the field of unreal standards for American women. You see, Gibson created the Gibson Girl, an image that helped perpetuate the fun, sexy, impossibly proportioned, politically ignorant, ideal of female beauty and decorum that came to dominate the Gilded Age, and in many ways still exists today. Kind of like Gillian Flynn’s “cool girl,” but with Saratoga potatoes instead of chilidogs.


Another story tells of another Gibson, Hugh Simons Gibson, who worked as a diplomat for the State Department. Gibson was something of a teetotaler, but nonetheless wanted to keep up appearances with his martini-swilling colleagues. His solution: fill his glass with water and mark it with an onion so not to lose track of it among the many other glasses in the room.

A similar deception was allegedly employed by a banker named Gibson who would have a bartender serve him water during three-martini lunches, giving him a sober edge in negotiations while his clients got boozed up. The onion was once again used as a signifier. The lesson here: If you see an onion in someone’s glass, they are drinking water, and will most likely screw you out of something.

On the truthier side of the bar, the onion substitution is said to have been used to denote drier martinis — those with less vermouth — from the classic preparation. As the martini has trended drier over time, the garnish has since become arbitrary. While this makes sense, it doesn’t get us any closer to the name, which, it seems, most men with the name Gibson have laid claim to at some point in their lives.

The most convincing story takes us back to San Francisco. According to a 2009 story in the SF Gate, local businessman Walter D.K. Gibson invented the cocktail at the famous Bohemian Club (a private club for the city’s most influential men) around 1890. Given this Gibson’s connections to this club and all its Illuminati intrigue, it’s probably best to go with this story lest our lives turn into a Dan Brown novel.

“Is it a secret you will die for?”

The Gibson Recipe
The Gibson is essentially a martini — a crisp and potent cocktail that requires a quality spirit. So don’t skimp, buy the good stuff.

2.5 oz. gin or vodka
1/2 oz. dry vermouth
2 cocktail onions

Pour the spirits into a shaker filled with ice. Stir, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the onions. Variation: make it dirty by adding a splash of onion juice for a more savory taste.

Enjoy while listening to this:

John Coltran Blue Train

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