My idea of wisdom is knowing better than to judge how somebody orders their martini*. It’s a deeply personal thing. Among the most classic of classic stirred-up cocktails, the martini has perhaps the most forgiving dress code of any. So, it pains me when someone sheepishly admits that they like olives and a twist in their martini, or more brine than vermouth, or shaken and not stirred. There’s no need to be sheepish.
The only situation I would strongly encourage (but never insist) a person modify their martini is if they prefer theirs with vodka, but admit to never having tried one with gin. A gin martini, with a ratio of two parts gin and one part dry vermouth, is the cocktail in its most pure and original. When done with excellence, it’s a truly perfect and marvellous thing very much worth a try (especially if you haven’t imbibed one before).
The martini does have a sister
Well it has a few siblings, but I’m thinking about one specifically. This one is akin to a fraternal twin, and her name is Gibson. She’s a martini with a cocktail onion, and she is spectacular.
I met the Gibson at the tail end of my own preferential martini evolution. To me, the martini’s appeal had always been — as I imagine is the case with many people — the luscious olive that sits so invitingly on a skewer. As a child, I would pour pickle brine in a martini glass, skewer half a dozen mealy pimento olives on a toothpick, and sit out on the first floor balcony of the studio apartment my mum was renting. Depending on the day and how I felt, I would pretend I was either Auntie Mame or Stockard Channing in The First Wives Club.
Since I can remember having taste buds, I have loved all things briney and sour. My sister and I would peel lemons like an orange, quarter them, and eat them doused with salt and red vinegar. I could spend the whole afternoon after school going to town on a bag of limes, slicing each in half, and pouring Lucas Lime Salt on the pulp. I would eat them with a grapefruit spoon until a pile of ravaged rind carcasses were all that remained.
And while this lust for all face-contorting flavours has curbed somewhat with age for me (I just can’t party like I used to), my sister still keeps citric acid in her spice drawer. You know, so she can dunk her extra sour Warheads in it, obviously. (I shudder to speculate on the state of our enamel.)
When I finally came across a Gibson, I was intrigued and delighted. Of course, I still adore a good olive-garnished martini, but on the spectrum of brine, olives skew more on the salty side, leaving my acid-loving heart something to be desired. The Gibson, on the other hand, seemed to hit all points with aplomb. Vinegary, salty, a touch sweet — and what’s more Balkan than eating an onion while sipping on booze? I was in love.
But I was also in a pickle, because good cocktail onions are astonishingly hard to find. They are almost always one dimensional in flavour, or too sweet, or too mushy, or too tizzed — as in “artisanal” — out. Or, worst of all, tizzed out and mushy. It breaks my heart, and I just can’t abide most of what’s available on the shelves. So I started making my own Gibson onions, achieving a final product that pleases me greatly. I even think my sister would love them, but I’m afraid to ship a jar to California. (Is vinegar combustible?)
How to make Gibson onions
To say that I properly pickle my own would be too generous a statement, since pickling seems to require at least some measure of care and patience. Thus, the process I’m about to describe may horrify many of you, but I’m hoping it will entice a few of you, too. Either way, I won’t judge your martini if you don’t judge my Gibson.
Ingredients (everything is to taste, so trust your palate):
- Pack of pearl onions. Not too tiny, but not too big — between a marble and golf ball. I use red onions, but sometimes I get wild and do a mix of red and yellow onions, but I highly recommend red onions. How many? How many are you willing to peel? That’s how many.
- Salt. Lots of it.
- Sugar. A little bit of it.
- Vinegars. That’s right. Plural. Mix that shit up. (But balsamic can fuck right off. It has no business here. Apple Cider, too. Love you, but not now.) In my last batch, I used a bunch of white wine vinegar, some regular white vinegar, and a tablespoon of overproof white vinegar procured from a Russian grocery store. Basically, I used what I had on hand. But it is generally some combination of red and/or white wine vinegar with some plain white vinegar thrown in for good measure.
- Pickling spice. Y’know: coriander seeds, couple of cloves, a bay leaf, and some black peppercorn. Mustard seeds are cool. So are dill seeds. Don’t overthink it.
- Water. Because we need to care about our esophagus and stomach lining.
Mix the vinegar, salt, and sugar together. This is all done to taste, so start on the lighter end of what you think you’ll need and add as you go along. Heat if needed to help the solutes dissolve. Once you’ve achieved a balance that you like, add a little water to cut the astringency. However much water is your business, not mine, but it shouldn’t equal or exceed the amount of vinegar or else what’s the point? Why are we doing this?
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, add the pearl onions, and boil for one minute. (Anymore, and we venture into mush territory.) Drain into a colander and then submerge in icy water. Trim the root end off, and pull the top end so the skin comes off like a sleeve. (You can score the root end before you boil them, this can help make them easier to peel.)
Place pearl onions in an airtight container, pour your brine mixture on top, and seal shut. Place in the refrigerator and wait 24-48 hours.
How to make a Gibson
- 60 ml Gin
- 30 ml Dry Vermouth
- Barspoon onion brine if you like it a little dusty
Pour the gin and vermouth into a chilled stirring glass, and add cracked ice. Stir for about 25-30 seconds, then strain into a chilled coupe. (If going for a dusty Gibson, rinse your chilled coupe with the barspoon of brine, or add the brine directly to your mixing glass before stirring.) Garnish with as many cocktail onions as you’d like.
*The only martini I have ever judged. Made by my aforementioned sister: