IF YOU BINGED Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit,” like I did recently, you might have found yourself suddenly hankering for everything that show had to offer, such as those tailored vintage clothes and Anya Taylor-Joy’s perfectly coifed hair. (Spoiler: They’re wigs, so don’t feel bad if you can’t pull off that flip every day.) Supposedly the show is even inspiring a generation of young women to take up chess themselves.
And, frequently perched in heroine Beth Harmon’s perfectly manicured hand is a Gibson martini, a bona fide “classic” pre-Prohibition cocktail, one of the canon of swigged drinks that took the Victorians into the Jazz Age. The only difference between a regular gin martini and a Gibson is the garnish: a pickled pearl cocktail onion (or three) sitting like an unblinking white eyeball in the bottom of one’s glass.
This seems an appropriate choice for “The Queen’s Gambit.” Despite being a girl in a boy’s world, Harmon didn’t want a cherry or a strawberry in her drink, or to make it pink, or to make it sweeter. She wanted an onion: something slightly harsh and initially off-putting, a savory garnish that suggests a sophisticated palate and a contempt for the saccharine. She also drank far too many of them, but one need not emulate everything one sees on television.
However, the original Gibson recipes did not involve onions at all. Early drinks called Gibsons were mostly just variations on regular martinis that omitted bitters, which were ubiquitous in pre-Prohibition martinis but are included less frequently now. This means that what we now generally call a martini (2½ ounces gin, ½ ounce dry vermouth) might be what our great-grandparents used to call a Gibson. (The first published version of the recipe appears in 1908 in a charming manual called “The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them” by a man appropriately named William “Cocktail” Boothby, and his Gibson has no bitters, and also no onion.)
So whence the now-essential cocktail onion? The iconic garnish has so many suspiciously similar origin stories that surely none of them is remotely true. The overall gist of most of these tales is that somebody (insert famous socialite, movie star or cocktail personality) at some bar or party somewhere (San Francisco, New York, etc.) full of matching Manhattans and martinis wanted to keep track of her beverage, to make sure that when she took a sip, she was getting exactly the drink she’d ordered, so she plopped an onion into it instead of the usual lemon twist or olive. This does beg one question, though: If that was the first time anyone had ever put an onion in a drink, why did the bar stock pickled onions?
Whatever the origin, the onion — pickled, savory-sweet and slightly spicy — changes the martini tremendously. Gin is already an aromatic spirit, each brand singing with its own mixture of distilled herbs, and depending on what you pickle the onion with, your Gibson could swirl with a heady thread of allspice; or the bite of black pepper and caraway seeds; or even a hint of garlic, if you’re into that. The art of a Gibson is pairing the herbs in the gin with the spices attached to the onion.
You can purchase cocktail onions in the pickle section of the grocery store, but the really pro move is to make your own; a simple, quick vinegar pickle and a brief stint in the fridge will do the trick. Pearl onions are surprisingly hard to find fresh (I checked five major grocery stores this week and came up empty), but you can usually find them frozen, conveniently prepeeled and ready for your ministrations.
Your pickling blend is what will make the most difference in your final Gibson. I like my pickles mustard-forward, not too sweet and with a tendency to wake up the sinuses. The recipe I use is an adapted mashup from Gabriella Mlynarczyk’s recipe in The New York Times, and Martha Stewart’s recipe. Feel free to reduce the spices in the pickling mixture to what you have on-hand — you don’t need to go hog-wild in the spice section to get a good pickled onion.
1 lb. pearl onions (frozen is fine, but thaw them first)
3 Tbsp. yellow mustard seeds
1 Tbsp. coriander seeds
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1 Tbsp. allspice berries
1 Tbsp. black peppercorns
1 Tbsp. fennel seeds
2-3 bay leaves
1 tsp. crushed chile flakes
2 cups white vinegar (rice vinegar is also fine, or white wine vinegar)
¼ cup dry vermouth (optional) or water
¼ cup to ½ cup sugar (depending on your palate, and use the lesser amount if you add the vermouth)
1.5 Tbsp. kosher salt
Note: Sometimes, to be adventurous, I add 2-3 whole cloves of garlic, crushed once with the side of a knife, to the recipe.
1. Bring the ingredients for the pickling liquid (minus the spices) to a boil in a saucepan. Reduce to a simmer, and add the spices. Simmer for about a minute, then remove from the heat.
2. Place the thawed onions in a glass canning jar, and pour over the hot pickling liquid. Cover it (i.e., close the jar), and let it sit in your fridge for 3 days to a week for best results. I would surmise that these safely keep for about 2 weeks in the fridge beyond that.