Martinis at Vol. 39 in Chicago (image: David Szymanski)
I’ll just come out and say it: The Gibson is one of the most underrated Martinis in the Martini family tree. While that shouldn’t be the case, its lack of popularity is probably due to the heavy measure of vermouth used in the recipe, the juniper-forward gin at the base or the onion garnish that defines the drink. But more often than not, I blame the onion.
Some 90 percent of Gibsons served are garnished with an onion that’s store-bought, generic and sickly white with a brine that consists of more corn syrup sweetness than briney bite. Rather than adding to the depth and complexity of the cocktail, the garnish makes the drink less than the sum of its parts.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s easier than you think to make your own cocktail onion—at home or behind the bar. To get the inside scoop on what constitutes a well-made cocktail onion, we talked to two bartenders known for their Gibsons.
According to Jim Kearns, the beverage director of The Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley in New York City, the secret to making any pickled garnish is balance. “It’s about tweaking the harmony of sweet, sour, salty and spicy,” he says.
When Kearns was constructing the recipe that he uses at his bars, he tasted a myriad of different cocktail onion brands. After finding ones that he actually liked, he dissected their flavor to see what he could learn about each of them. “I went for something that was more sweet and spicy,” he says. “Onions have a natural sweetness that can be accentuated by a sweeter off-sour brine.”
His recipe uses four different vinegars at the base: apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar and rice wine vinegar. According to Kearns, the red and white wine vinegars are there to bring balance with the vermouth in the cocktail, the rice vinegar adds a touch of sweetness, and the apple cider vinegar (which is the main vinegar used) lends a “rounder, fruitier flavor.”
For spices, he uses chiles, bay leaf, garlic and peppercorns—a pretty standard pickling spice mix. “It’s not about trying to reinvent the wheel,” says Kearns. “It’s about making something simple that’s more flavorful than the usual [cocktail] onion.”
According to Kearns, when making cocktail onions for a bar setting, getting “heirloom onions” shouldn’t be your main concern. “It should be about what’s easiest [to procure and prep] and what causes your bar staff the least amount of heartache to make.”
Kearns buys pre-peeled onions from his restaurant’s produce supplier. He then makes his own brine and then pickles them in-house. Best of all, he says, they’ll never go bad once they’re pickled. “They get better the longer they sit in the brine, especially if they’re fully submerged from the start.”
(image: Brent Hofacker)
Josh Relkin, the beverage director at Chicago’s Vol 39., has a different method for pickling cocktail onions. Unlike Kearns, he opts for a spicer brine that has a serious kick to it. With the addition of chiles, chile flakes and warming baking spices in the mix, he gives his pickles more heat at the back of the palate. It not only lends more depth of flavor, he says, but the spiciness gives the onions a bracing backbone.
Rather than using pre-peeled cocktail onions, Relkin opts for larger pearl onions that he peels in-house. “They’re plumper and more mellow in flavor to begin with,” he says. “This helps the onions absorb the vinegar and the flavors of the pickling spice.”
The brine is heated on the stove (to fully dissolve the sugar) and poured over the fresh pearl onions while it’s still hot. The heat of the brine cooks the onions partially through, to soften them without making them mushy or slimy. He then lets this mixture sit for two days in the refrigerator before straining off the spices so that the heat of the spice “doesn’t get too aggressive.”
Another trick that Relkin uses to give his cocktail onions a boost of flavor is to toast all of his spices in the stockpot before he adds the sugar and vinegar. “It brings out the natural oils,” he says. “It’s also important to use whole spices rather than powdered spices. You want to break them up only slightly, either with a mortar and pestle or by wrapping them in a paper towel and slamming them on the counter. It will give you a spice mix that’s more aromatic and more pungent.”
Like Kearns, Relkin opts for alternative vinegars as the base of his brine. He says to steer clear of colored vingers—unless you want your pickles to be pink—and straight, plain white vinegar. “White vinegar is used to clean countertops, not to make pickles,” he says.
For his recipe, Relkin uses 100 percent Champagne vinegar. He says he found that this vinegar specifically gives the onions a bracing sour bite and rounder, more complex flavor that’s soft and sweet. “If you think about it, one of the main components of a Gibson is vermouth, which is wine-based,” he says. “A wine-based vinegar like Champagne vinegar brings balance to everything. It really ties the whole drink together.”