Charles Dana Gibson was an American illustrator at the turn of the 20th century best known for his renowned and celebrated Gibson Girl, and, of course, the cocktail that bears his name. As usual, there are several stories of where the Gibson came from, but forget the others. It’s named for the artist, because he liked his Martini with onions.
The Gibson is a working class cocktail, free of frills, and dates to a time when illustration was a celebrated art form, an art form for the masses, and consumed on the pages of popular magazines, such as Life. In fact, it was to Life magazine that Gibson sold his first illustration in 1886, the start of a career that would make him one of history’s most successful and famous artists. Gibson himself, however, was anything but working class.
Born of privilege, Gibson was a Blue Blood, a descendant of a respected New England political family, but he didn’t exploit it. Instead, he worked at his art, quickly becoming a prolific creator. He was 19 when he sold that illustration to Life, and, after celebrating the success by splurging for a 75 cent chicken pie, hit the ground running. The taste of success led him to create and sell. Soon he was regularly published in many, if not all, of the popular magazines at the time, and he was a genuine celebrity. But how? How does an artist become an international superstar?
The 1890s and early 1900s were a different time. There were no movie theaters or anything like that. Although you could attend a performance, the only way to reach people at home, on their time, was magazines. The Victorian age gave us industry, and industry gave us mass production and mass entertainment in the form of magazines, and the heroes of those magazines were the illustrators, championed in the same way we regard movie stars today. Gibson was the most popular of them all, not only for his skill, but for his business sense, and very progressive attitudes toward society.
His most well known creation, the Gibson Girl, presented women in a way never seen in print before then. Even today, the attitudes of the Gibson Girl, sophisticated, independent, strong, elegant, and ever so slightly dangerous, still resonate. Of course, Gibson’s catalog contains so much more, he drew life as it was, sure, but also as he wanted it to be. Gibson put everyone on an even playing field, something that most definitely wasn’t the case in the reality of Edwardian times, and he took full advantage of his success. He became the editor of Life, and sold his work everywhere, printed on everything. It was on plates, mugs, posters, books, calendars, trinkets of every kind, anything you can imagine, and more. He was a marketing machine, and this is partly why the Gibson Girl is still so popular. Not only is it great art, it’s great marketing. Gibson created the template followed by the likes of Walt Disney, George Lucas, and all the great entertainment marketing minds. By the end of his career, Charles Dana Gibson was a superstar, a working class hero worthy of a working class cocktail.
Working class cocktails don’t spark debate. Gibson liked his Martinis with onions, therefore, a Gibson is a Martini as the artist liked it, and nothing else. No, it isn’t a Martini, there is no debate over how to make it or what goes in it, and while you can add all sorts of stuff to a Martini, or even make it with vodka, a Gibson is gin, vermouth, and onions, served up, and that’s it.
Nothing tastes like this unique cocktail, and it has the distinction as one of the few drinks whose last sip is better than the first because, onions, those wonderful pickled onions that flavor the drink the longer it sits. What do we put in it? The Gibson is a cocktail named for one of the greatest celebrities of his time, so of course we’re using Aviation Gin, a brand from a superstar celebrity of our time. We know the story of Ryan Reynolds and Aviation Gin already, and if you ever have a chance to visit House Spirits, where the gin is still made, ask to see the still, and be amazed at how tiny it is. Aviation Gin, now an international brand, is still made in the same equipment from which it was born, just as the Gibson is still made in the same way it was first poured. Ratios vary of course, so adjust to your liking or to the brands of gin or vermouth that you use. If you’re like us, you’ll want to keep it local, mix it with Ransom Dry Vermouth, and savor it slowly, letting the onions do their thing. While you’re at it, get to know the Gibson Girl again, too, because there’s nothing better than timeless art, both in the glass, and on the page.
Stir with ice and serve up. Garnish with cocktail onions.