Meaghan Dorman describes the Gibson as a “Martini with a snack.” At Dear Irving, the mixologist has worked to develop a Gibson recipe that is sweet, savory, and dry, all at the same time. She has been serving up the pink-hued final product, with a red pearl onion to top it all off, ever since.
On this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy chats with Dorman about the art of the pickled onion, choosing the right gin, and how Dorman set out (and succeeded) in bringing more people to this briny Martini cousin.
Tune in to learn how to make the perfect Gibson.
Meaghan Dorman’s Gibson Recipe
- 2 ounces Tanqueray No. 10 gin
- 1 ounce Carpano bianco vermouth
- 2 tablespoons pickling liquid
- Garnish: 1 pickled onion
- Add gin, vermouth, and pickling liquid to a cold mixing glass with four whole Kold Draft cubes and three cracked ones.
- Stir until cold (around 10 seconds).
- Strain into a cold coupe glass.
- Garnish with chilled pickled onion on a toothpick.
Check Out te Conversation Here
Tim McKirdy: I’m Tim McKirdy. This is “Cocktail College,” and we are in the VinePair studio today with Meaghan Dorman. Meaghan, welcome to the show.
Meaghan Dorman: Hi. Thanks for having me.
T: Thank you so much for coming. I’m really excited to chat with you today about the Gibson. This is a drink that I know you have gone to great extent to perfect. I want to start with a little elevator pitch for the Gibson. You could say, “This is a Martini with a cocktail onion.”
M: It’s a Martini with a snack.
T: It’s a Martini with a snack. Fantastic. Why have a drink or food when you can have both at the same time?
T: Having had your Gibson, I know that’s also selling it slightly short. Yours isn’t just a Martini with a snack. You go further. Do you see it that way? Is the Gibson, for you, a riff on the Martini, or is it its own standalone cocktail? It’s getting its own episode here.
M: Right? It should live on its own. I definitely put it in the Martini family. My goal when I was creating this Gibson — it’s been on the menu since we opened Dear Irving in 2014 — was to bring more people into the Gibson game. I thought that it got a bad rap and didn’t stand up as well with the Martinis and the Martinas and all those related drinks. I made a more savory version, which I’m sure we’ll get into. I wanted to bring more people into the Gibson fold.
The History of the Gibson
T: I think what you do with your Gibson is incredible, too, because you’re placing it as a standalone cocktail. If we’re talking about Martini riffs or cocktails with Martini in the name, most of them aren’t Martinis. The Gibson kind of is, but I also think this is a bonafide, standalone drink. I’m really excited to chat about that today. We’re going to go chronologically. We can start by looking at the history. Are there any important historical aspects to this drink? Is this a drink that we know the history of, or is it one of those where it could have been anything.
M: As Dave Wondrich has said many times, the thing about drinks history is that people were drinking. So, it’s not very official. However, my favorite Gibson story is from the “Mad Men” era in L.A. or maybe a little earlier. There was a businessman named Charles Gibson, so the story goes. He would get to lunch ahead of time. This was the era of three Martini lunches. He’d order one with a cocktail onion to distinguish his own from his guests’. After the first one, he was only drinking cold water while everyone else was still drinking. That’s how he stayed smart and sharp at three Martini lunches. There’s also stories about the Gibson Girls and a couple of others, but that’s my favorite.
T: I like that story. Kudos to Charles Gibson if he’s doing that, because once you have one, it’s very hard to turn the second or even the third down. One thing that I always think about when reading that or variations on that tale, it makes me wonder, what cocktails out there have cocktail onions? How would the bartenders have had that en place or is that coming from the kitchen? We’re calling it a cocktail onion, but what other drinks are associated with that?
M: It is a pickled onion. If you go back in drinks history or food history, it was a big way of preserving things. It’s not that surprising to me that, although you don’t see it pop up in too many other recipes, it actually might have been more prevalent than it was for a while. Then, we got to the ones that we buy on the store shelves that are more preserved in wine or some kind of liquid. I wouldn’t exactly call it pickled. We went back to pickling at Dear Irving to make a really savory, delicious onion.
T: I can’t wait to get into that, too. If there’s one thing that I enjoy, it’s a cocktail with a project attached. One of the great things about the Gibson is having that, if you’re going to go into that by making it at home. Back then, you probably didn’t ask for it with a cocktail onion. You probably asked for it with the pickled onion or with an onion in it, and that’s what they gave you. Here’s a different question. Has the Gibson created the “cocktail onion?” Who knows?
M: I do think it’s the only reason they exist, whether or not they served another purpose before.
Breaking Down the Gibson’s Ingredients
T: If we can just briefly outline the other ingredients that are going to be in there, then, we can break each one down bit by bit. What’s going to be in your classic Gibson, whether it’s yours or anyone’s?
M: A classic Gibson would most likely be what we also call a wet Martini, which is usually 1 ounce of dry vermouth and 2 ounces of London dry gin, with a cocktail onion. I wanted to make a more savory one at Dear Irving, and I do think that combination, with the store shelf onion, can make a very astringent Gibson. That’s probably why it wasn’t as beloved as others. I use a bianco vermouth, Carpano bianco, so that it’s a little sweeter, a little richer, and a little more herbal. I use Tanqueray 10, which is a more citrus-forward gin created just for Martinis. We actually use some of the pickled onion brine in the drink so that it’s like that little Champagne vinegar edge. It’s a little savory, a little richer, and rounder than the classic.
T: When it comes down to it, correct me if I’m wrong, I believe that is one of the things that really sets your recipe apart, using Carpano bianco or a white vermouth that’s not dry. You’re not just talking about the sweetness, either. That’s what led you there in the first place, but there’s also the aromatics with that. Do you think Carpano goes down a different path, to maybe a Dolin or other white vermouths that people are using?
M: Yeah, I do. I would definitely use Dolin dry in a standard Martini. For our particular house Gibson, though, that’s the way we went. I wouldn’t interchange it in every dry vermouth recipe.
T: For me, trying that and seeing the recipe written down was this light bulb moment. With cocktails or cooking, we’re always trying to create perfect balance, and we don’t always need to put acidity, sweetness, bitterness, and other things in, but when some of those aspects are in there, it’s very good. Having that bianco vermouth is so good. It also gives me a reason to use it. I have it on my shelf, and then in my fridge when I open it, but what else am I using bianco vermouth for?
M: It does make a great spritz. I would recommend it there. But, in the Gibson, it’s the way to go. Another thought process I had with that is that I really like to show off how two, three, or four ingredients can work in simplicity. That’s how we started at Raines Law Room. It was very classic-focused and a much smaller space. Even at Dear Irving, where it’s a bigger bar and has a kitchen so we can do a little more, I still just love to show off what three things can do to turn into something brand new.
T: So much greater than the sum of their parts. You’re using a wonderful gin in there, Tanqueray 10. Let’s talk about that. Let’s also talk about that style of gin as well, versus the classic London drys.
M: I’m a big gin fan altogether, so it’s not that I pick one over the other, but I do pick them for different reasons. My retirement plan is to have a gin and tonic every day at 4 p.m., so I’m committed to the category, OK? Tanqueray 10, of course, is the sister of the benchmark Tanqueray. What I learned through this industry is that it was created just for Martinis. That was the idea. Of course it has juniper, like it must, but it’s way more on the citrus side of things. There’s grapefruit, especially. I get a big grapefruit note from Tanqueray 10. I do think it’s a little softer. I think it plays really well with the herbal side of the vermouth and still dries it out from that little extra sweetness we get from the bianco vermouth. Then, it’s just a quarter-ounce of the onion brine that we actually use. That’s not just the garnish, but the brine. It’s savory, sweet, and dry all together.
T: I’m trying to visualize flavors now. This is a more delicate gin than standard Tanqueray. On the other hand, you have these very bold ingredients, too. You have that onion and like you said, you’re also using some of the brine and a bold vermouth. Was your intention to have the Tanqueray shine just as much, or was it to create this one, homogenized flavor, but in a good way?
M: The goal was for it to be a supporting actor in a brand-new flavor. I do think it made a difference. I tried it a few different ways when I was working on it, but it’s really about it being more than the sum of its parts.
T: This is the only occasion I can think of where I’ve had gin as something of a supporting actor, but it actually still works amazingly. In the Martini episode of this show, I talked about how I want vermouth to be the supporting actor, and I want the gin to be there. It really works in this instance you’re describing, though. The next ingredient and, let’s be honest, the defining ingredient of any Gibson, is the cocktail onion. Let’s get into this. This is really exciting. For these onions, can I go to my store to get the frozen, peeled ones? Can I look around the vegetable section for the smallest onions I can find in there? Or, is there a specific variety of onion that you like to use for this?
M: I know we’re in radio land, so you’ll have to come to the Dear Irving and have one so you can see it. It’s a red pearl onion and it’s just so beautiful in that clear Martini. We use red pearl onions. We do buy them already peeled. There’s no reason to put in extra work on this project, but you can get red pearl onions or even any small onion. I really love the visual factor of the red ones. The other big factor there is Champagne vinegar. We’re going to keep it classy. I think it’s a little softer, again, and something that blends really well with the wine base in the vermouth. If you can’t find Champagne vinegar, you still want to go a step above the white vinegar that’s on the shelf. Get something a little nicer.
T: Like we said, this is really the star of the show in this drink, in a way. You cannot skimp on those ingredients and especially that vinegar.
M: You also have to keep the onions crunchy. If you’re not familiar with pickling something, you make the sugar, spice, and vinegar mix and bring that to a boil. I put the onions in for a minute exactly. I stand there and time it. Then, I separate them until everything’s cool, and then I’ll combine it again. That keeps the onions crunchy because you want your snack to be delightful with that Martini.
T: Then, you’re storing those in pickling brine. You’re storing it in those, presumably after the brine has cooled. Then, you’re storing it back in there for preservation purposes.
M: Exactly. The brine will also get a little bit of that red onion color as well. It’s like just a little hint of pink.
T: Amazing. When I used to work in a kitchen and was on the starter section, we would have a lot of pickles that we were keeping on top of, whether it was shallots or whatever. We would continue to reuse that brine. Is that something that you do, too? If you are doing that, how often are you refreshing it with something? Is it almost like the sourdough starter where you have your base, but you’re refreshing it?
M: We definitely have to use the same recipe over again so that it is the same. Consistency is really important. I think the best thing about pickles is that they were meant to last forever. We make a lot of Gibsons, so we run through it. If it is something that you make at home, it will last a long time, which is great.
T: There’s a solera brine situation happening here. That’s another reason why you need to go to Dear Irving and have your Gibson, because this solera has been going on for generations now. These onions are unique.
M: They are.
T: You also mentioned the color there. That really visually makes your cocktail pop. It’s another dimension.
M: We opened during 2014, when you just had to give into the fact, whether you love it or not, that people are taking a lot of photos of their food and drink. It’s a beautiful space, and I wanted a really simple drink that would look beautiful when people were photographing it. That was part of the idea as well.
T: We have our ingredients here. We have our two parts gin and one part vermouth. We have now established how you’re making those onions. One more question about the onions for you. When you’re making that brine — going back to balance — are you looking for this to be noticeably acidic and vinegary, or are you striving for perfect balance on that solution when you’re tasting it?
M: The brine definitely is a bit on the vinegary, pickle side, but I think the Champagne vinegar helps it balance in the cocktail overall. While we do want that little punch, we don’t want it to be on the kombucha side of things. I was trying to bring more people to the Gibson, not turn them off from it.
T: Have you ever tried using vermouth in that as well? From the chef side of things, I always think that if we’re using vermouth in the cocktail, then it might be cool to use that in the brine as well. Have you tried that?
M: I haven’t tried it, only because I was so happy with how the onions came out in the first couple of tries. The big thing was the Champagne vinegar, so I didn’t dive too much into anything else.
T: If it ain’t broke. In fact, it’s better than ain’t broke.
M: I’m always happy when I get something right pretty close to the first couple of tries.
T: Let’s not overcomplicate things, yeah. Then, you’re just taking that exact same brine when you’re using it, including in the cocktail. Are you looking for that to be from the freshest batch, and are you storing that in the fridge in between service?
M: We are storing it in the fridge. We do separate it. We always keep the onions in the brine and drain off a little bit into what we call a cheater bottle, which is a little bottle that we keep at the bar. We make so many Gibsons that we’re going through it. I would say we make onions once a week, so it’s not sitting too long.
T: We’re going to talk about stirring, preparation, and whatnot in a second. First, what’s the temperature of those onions when you serve them? Do you want those to be cold? Do you want them to be slightly more room temperature? Obviously, you want to have an impact when you bite into it, but you get that crunch.
M: I don’t think they need to be freezing. We do keep them in a garnish jar on crushed ice, as we do with olives. What is important is that you work so hard to make this cold, perfectly diluted cocktail, that you don’t want to put a warm onion or olive in it. It’s not going to change temperature immediately, but we’re detail-focused people. These drinks are expensive. We can chill your onion for you.
Stirring the Gibson
T: Exactly. Like you said, you just spent all that effort bringing this drink down to temperature, so you don’t want to raise it straight back up again with a warm onion. Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about stirring. Something that fascinates me about Martini-style drinks is all the different things you hear about stirring. People have different techniques. Do you have any kind of idiosyncrasies when it comes to stirring these together? Is it a time? Is it a feeling? Is it sight or even hearing? Let’s talk about that process.
M: I call stirring the ballet of bartending.
T: Ooh, I like that.
M: I think it should be one of those things where it’s quite elegant. You get a great result, but when you’re really good and your technique is good, you don’t actually see the effort. You can still have a conversation over the bar and then this beautiful Martini is done. People barely even notice what was happening. When I’m training bartenders, though, I work a little backwards, as in saying, “This is the result we want. How you get there is kind of up to you.” I’m not going to tell you 10 or 12 seconds or exactly how long you shake because it is a little different per person. What we’re trying to get to is this result over and over. I think it can vary a little bit for people. When I’m making a Gibson, I’m going to start with our small, affordable ingredients, so that would be our onion brine first. Then, in case I mess up, I’m not going to throw a bunch of Tanqueray 10. I’m going to start with that. Then, I’m going to do the 1 ounce of the bianco vermouth. Then, I’m going to do 2 ounces of the Tanqueray 10 in a mixing glass, which is also a little bit cold. It’s not freezing, but from the fridge. I always do four whole Kold Draft cubes and three cracked ones.
M: Then, I stir for about 10 seconds. That’s me. That’s how I get the result I want. That way, I pretty much know every time when it’s done. We have a frozen cocktail glass for it, a coupe. There’s that chilled onion on a nice toothpick. I strain it out, make sure there are no floating icebergs or anything like that, and then you have a nice, beautiful, cold Gibson.
Best Practices for Ice in the Gibson
T: Fantastic. You mentioned cracking ice cubes there, and you also mentioned Dave Wondrich earlier. Without timestamping this too much, at the beginning of the pandemic, I remember Dave Wondrich was on Twitter every day making cocktails step-by-step with photos. I’m not sure whether you saw that, but one thing he would go into every day was that the “first step you’re going to do, of course, as always, is crack your ice.” I thought, “Wow, I feel like a real amateur here, because I’ve never been doing that. I did not know that was a thing. Can you tell us about that?
M: It also depends a little bit on what kind of ice you have because there are a few different kinds of ice. It can work against you when you have this super-dense ice because it actually doesn’t give off a lot of water right away. You are looking for a little bit of dilution. Water is an ingredient in cocktails that helps bond everything. It can take the hotness out of some higher-proof things and it helps blend it all into something brand new. If you have bigger ice cubes or Kold Draft cubes, it can take a while. You’re stirring and stirring, and the person waiting is thinking, “Oh, can I have my Gibson now?” If you’re at home or using hotel ice, it’s going to melt a lot faster. If you have some really dense, super-cold cubes, cracking them will break it up. It’s going to dilute a little faster. That’s how I look at it.
T: Larger surface area.
M: Yeah. Then, when you’re having an Old Fashioned, you love one of those big cubes because they let you sip and savor that drink a little longer.
T: I kept getting taught surface areas in school, and I always thought, “When am I going to use surface areas?” Actually, it does have a practical use in life that we can appreciate.
M: I will say sometimes the bartender’s science seems questionable.
T: A bit like bartender history.
M: Yeah. Like, what’s the result?
T: In this case, there definitely seems to be a strong case for it. You mentioned pouring into a chilled glass. If I recall correctly, you’re using a Nick and Nora glass for this? Or is that a very specific glass? Either way, it’s absolutely beautiful, but what’s your preference?
M: Our glass is somewhere between a Nick and Nora and a coupe, which is the rounder Champagne bowl one. I believe a true Nick and Nora would be a little square and often has the sidecar on the side of that extra bit of drink, which we don’t do. We give it all to you. I would say it’s in between them.
T: Versus a classic cocktail coupe, does that also just help the waitstaff when it comes to delivering these at tables and handing them over?
M: Yeah. For us, we also don’t want everything to look exactly the same. We did know that the Gibson was going to be one of our drinks. As long as people liked it, it would be on the menu for a long time. We ordered a lot of those glasses, and that’s our Gibson glass. We have a few others for other drinks, but it also goes into that aesthetic idea of us not wanting everything landing on a table looking exactly the same. There has to be a little style to it.
Final Thoughts on the Gibson
T: Fantastic. And other general thoughts about the Gibson? If not, I have a quick anecdote that I can share with you in terms of your own Gibson. The first time I tried your Gibson was one week before the pandemic. We were out with some friends, and we absolutely loved it. Within a week, we sadly did not have any access to bars. The Gibson, for me and those friends, became the drink that we would meet up on Zoom every other week and try to make. We definitely did not make it as well as you, but that became the drink of the pandemic for me, so I wanted to share that with you.
M: Thank you. I love to hear that. I did think, when I made it for Dear Irving, “This is pretty good. I like it.” Still, you never really know how things will hit with people. When people came back and said, “I’ve been thinking about that Gibson,” that was cool. I would be working, and I try to sit down at all the bars and just relax and have a drink every once in a while. If it’s been a while and I then sit down and have one, it just warms my heart that people say, “I came back for that drink. I thought about it. ” That’s a big win.
T: From my personal perspective as well, it takes a lot for me to not order a Martini. The fact that you offer something that’s also very closely related is great. If I was going back today, that’s the first thing I’d be going for, rather than the Martini. Really incredible.
M: Thank you. It’s kind of our thing.
Getting to Know Meaghan Dorman
T: Well, it’s been absolutely fantastic breaking down the Gibson and your Gibson today. Meghan, I would love for us to get to know you and your career a little bit more via our stock questions that we ask at the end of every episode. How does that sound?
M: I’m ready for the rapid fire.
T: Fantastic. Question No. 1: What would be the first bottle, whether it’s a brand, general style, or category that makes it onto any of your bar programs?
M: Wow. Not going to rapid fire this one. I always want to be able to make a Negroni, so that’s three bottles. Also, two things I always buy are Fords Gin and Buffalo Trace Bourbon. They’re just standards for me. They work in so many drinks. As much as we want to be particular about a certain Gibson, if you just want to be able to make a few drinks really well, those are two things that stand out to me.
T: I have said this on this show before, but with Fords Gin, I read a lot of brands talking about how they’ve crafted a gin for bartenders, but that’s really true in this scenario. This is the bartender’s gin for bartenders. It’s just incredible.
M: Yeah, which is why if you weren’t able to have a huge selection, but you did want to make both shaken and stirred drinks or Gin and Tonics, plus Negroni and Martinis, it’s a solid bet.
T: It’s a real all-around gin. At Dear Irving, at the moment, how many gins do you have on the back bar, if you don’t mind me asking?
M: I would say maybe 12. It’s definitely double digits. We’re in small New York real estate, so we don’t have everything under the sun, but I would say about 12.
T: I think that says a lot about the importance of gin. Second question here for you: Which ingredient or tool is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
M: A wine key, because I always forget about them until I’m going through security for the flight and I lose yet another one. A good wine key, I think, is very important.
T: Are you using it for just wine in general?
M: The little knife to open things is great, so you don’t have to use your good knife on bottles and boxes? I think I just say that because I so often feel like an amateur because I don’t have one. It always feels like, “Oh, God, how embarrassing.”
T: I’m not sure whether I want to admit this, but wine keys are a bit like lighters. No one’s ever bought one. They just get passed along from person to person and they always go missing.
M: And when you have a really good one, you’re like, “Make sure you give it back!”
T: The lighter of the bar world. Third question for you: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received during your time in the industry?
M: Audrey Saunders once told me, “Don’t take any shit.” I thought to myself, “You know what? I won’t.” I think that advice was more about trusting your instinct and your palate. Sometimes, especially being a woman in this industry, you can find a lot of ways to have your confidence challenged a little bit. I’m good at what I do. Sometimes, I need to remind myself of that and remind myself of Audrey’s advice.
T: I love that advice, too, because the way that I’m hearing it reflects the idea that you should also form your own opinion and have your own opinion.
M: Yeah. That’s part of why we go out to bars, right? They’re the last adult haven in a way. It’s more than just the drinks, too. It’s the personalities, the music, and the lights. I think a lot of people do it well. I don’t think I’m the only one, but I think we do something special.
T: Absolutely. There’s bars, brands, or products out there that get hyped and people just get on the train. I feel like sometimes, people are afraid to say, “Actually, I’m not sure that I’m in that camp.”
M: Yeah, It can work in a lot of places for a lot of people, but it might not be for you.
T: Exactly. Fourth question for you: If you could only visit one last bar in your life, what would it be?
M: I won’t go to Dear Irving and have a Gibson, even though it would be cool if I went out there. I’d probably choose Attaboy because it’s my favorite after-work spot. Milk & Honey was so influential to me in how I learned about drinks. Being in that space never really gets old for me.
T: Fantastic. You’re also more than welcome to go to Dear Irving and have a good time. Final question: If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make?
M: I actually have two answers. I’m on a global quest to find the best Espresso Martini. I kind of want to go out on a caffeine high. My favorite sipping drink, though, is a Boulevardier. If I’m contemplating, “This is my last one, it’s the end of the road,” I would actually go out on a Boulevardier. Espresso Martini is just a more fun story.
T: That’s really fun. If we can get you for a twofer here, what’s going to be your Boulevardier preferred spec as you’re making it at the moment.
M: As I make it right now, it’s Buffalo Trace bourbon, my favorite. There’s three-quarters of an ounce of Campari, three-quarters of an ounce of the sweet vermouth version of the Carpano, which is called Carpano antica, 1-and-a-half ounces of bourbon stirred on a big rock — I like it on the rocks — with orange twist oil expressed over.
T: Oh, that sounds wonderful.
M: Don’t you want one?
T: I really want one now. I’ll take a Gibson first, then I’ll finish with a Boulevardier.
M: That’s our nightcap.
T: Well, Meghan, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been really wonderful exploring the Gibson with you.
M: Thank you. I hope I made everybody thirsty.
T: I’m certainly thirsty.
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Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.