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Colleen Graham

The Real Gibson Story

By June 9, 2006

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Here's the common story of how the Martini came to be garnished with a cocktail onion and thus known as a Gibson...

Sometime in the 1930's a magazine illustrator named Charles Dana Gibson asked Charlie Conolly at New York's Players Club to make "something different" so Conolly used a cocktail onion to garnish a Martini and the resulting drink has come to be known as a Gibson.

This is the story you'll find in almost every cocktail reference to the Gibson, yet, there is another one that dates 40 years prior to this. Charles Pollok Gibson of San Fransisco recently wrote me to tell his family's story of the creation of the Gibson. His father's great uncle, Walter D K Gibson, was the real genius behind the onion-garnished cocktail and made the first Gibson sometime around 1898 at the Bohemian Club in San Francisco. Here is Charles' account of his family's cocktail history in his own words...

"The story goes that WDK Gibson objected to the way the bartender at the Bohemian made martinis. He preferred them stirred, and made with Plymouth Gin. He also believed that eating onions would prevent colds. Hence the onion. In his version--which I've not seen in later bar books, a twist of orange was held over the glass so that a bit of the oil would fall on the top. The original Gibson--as with all martinis--was also sweeter before the first world war, with about a 1/4 vermouth.

WDK died in 1938. I remember that here in San Francisco in my childhood (the '60's) my grandfather and all the old crowd spoke of the Gibson as being created here and by Walter Gibson, who was the brother-in-law of the "Sugar King" JD Spreckels. The first reference I have seen to it in a bar book was in one printed about 1911."

"...Unfortunately, I didn't know WDK Gibson myself but all those who did, my grandfather and my father and uncle remembered him well and the fact that he invented the Gibson. He used to drink them until he died in 38; and during prohibition his wife whose sister was Lillie Spreckels, insisted that the gin be prepared specially at home lest an inferior quality slip in. Alas I have no idea what her recipe was."

So there you have it right from the source (or fourth generation from the source, at least). The Gibson was invented by Walter D K Gibson in San Fransisco in the late 1800's. And what about the famous magazine illustrator, Charles Dana Gibson, who is attached to this cocktail? We may not know how he claimed this fame in particular, but we do have his sensuous "Gibson Girls" to enjoy even if we take the cocktail away from him.

What a rich family history and great story to pass along. Thank you Charles for setting the story (and me) straight.

An interview with Allan P Gibson was published by Charles McCabe of the SF Chronicle in the 1970's about his great uncle and the Gibson. This interview can now be found in McCabe's book The Good Man's Weakness (Chronicle Books, 1974).


June 22, 2006 at 12:17 am
(1) Whammie says:

Having worked in the restaurant business, and considering owning my own someday, I found this very interesting.
I take offense to people that profit on lies and half-truths, so if this info is legit, I applaud the author.
The Gibson Girls were racy for the time, and gorgeous! Still, if Charles Dana was given undue credit for something he did not create, if he knew about it, his duty was to step up and say so, which apparently he did not do.

June 22, 2006 at 9:29 pm
(2) lee watson says:

I have never believed the Gibson girls story , and wondered why its believed to be the truth, even in 1917 Mr Bullock published his cocktail book and in it was an Onion cocktail (named at the time)

May 19, 2007 at 2:27 am
(3) Charles Pollok Gibson says:

First, It’s sweet of you to publish my “Gibson Story”. Second: One mustn’t blame Charles Dana. It was Lucius Beebe who made the error in the Stork Club Bar book, after C D Gibson was dead.
Beebe’s lifelong friend Charles Clegg corrected the error in later years when he came to San Francisco. Herb Caen wrote it up once in the SF Chronicle, and it’s in Caen’s “One Man’s San Francisco” too.

July 3, 2011 at 12:31 pm
(4) Charles Inman says:

I understand the story to go even further back from the early 1800 story. It is my understanding that the Gibson was first noted when a gentlemen’s club bartender was required to provide a Mr Gibson with a martini containing vodka rather than gin, and to distinguish it from the other gin drinks, he placed an onion in the drink rather than an olive.

March 10, 2013 at 8:42 am
(5) Terry Thompsom says:

I was told there was Senator Gibson who was not a good drinker, when he drank with his fellow legislators he wanted to be one of the boys, they drank gin. He asked the bartender to put water in his glass. The others had an olive garnish, to distinguish Gibson’s from the others he used the cocktail onion. After time, one of his friends said “Give me one like Gibson’s “

March 11, 2013 at 11:44 am
(6) Colleen says:

See, this is what I love about cocktail stories… so many different takes diluted by the subject itself. We may never know what really went down, but thanks for sharing and keep the stories coming if you have a different version.

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