That's the response I've heard twice in one week upon serving different guests that simplest of drinks, the Gibson—or, as it is better known to the world, a Martini with a cocktail onion.
I was a bit taken aback by these laurels. But I had to admit: the Gibsons were damn good, better than any I'd every had in a bar. What made them so perfect? The gin? The vermouth? No, though I did use Plymouth gin and Dolin dry vermouth, so I was working with, arguably, the top ingredients on the market.
What's left, of course, is the onions, the only other ingredient in the drink.
A couple weeks back, I went on one of my periodic home-scientist kicks. Having run out of Luxardo maraschino cherries, and disgusted with the sort of garnishing cherries and onions that could be had in the market, I decided to make my own. Hardly a new idea. Bartenders and home enthusiasts have been making their own maraschino cherries for years now. (Onions, not so much.) I quickly whipped up two different recipes for cherries, one taken from the New York Times (ridiculously simple, but good), one from Sloshed (brandied cherries, really). Both turned out well, and were easy to make.
The onions were another matters. First of all, pearl onions aren't always the easiest thing to find. Second, you have to sit down and peel the tiny skins off every one of those bloody white orbs, which takes a bit of time. Finally, there aren't many recipes for cocktail onions out there, and the one I settled on was hardly what you would call a snap.
It was adapted from "Raising The Bar," the 2004 book by Nick Mautone, former manager of New York's Gotham Bar and Grill, and Gramercy Tavern. It called for 13 ingredients. I might have thrown up my hands right there, but, by some bizarre twist of fate, I actually had every one of the ingredients on hand, including the fresh rosemary, from a pot of the herb that I grow on my windowsill. (Why I had juniper berries in my spice cupboard, I can not tell you. I don't remember ever buying them.) And so I worked away:
1 pound, pearl onions
1/2 cup, sherry vinegar or white vinegar
1/2 cup, cider vinegar
1/2 cup, water
1/2 cup, salt
1/4 cup, sugar
1/2 teaspoon, mustard seed
24 juniper berries
6 allspice berries
1 rosemary branch or
1 teaspoon, dried rosemary
1 dried chile pepper
1 cup, dry vermouth
Add all of the remaining ingredients except the vermouth to a medium-size saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the onions to the saucepan, reduce the heat, and simmer for 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the onions to cool in the liquid. Stir in the vermouth. Transfer the cooled onions and liquid to a container with a tight-fitting lid. Store in the refrigerator.
This is worth the effort, I promise you. The resultant onions are easily 50 times more flavorful than any you would buy in the store. They possess layers of flavor rarely found in pickled objects of any sort. What's more, the smallest raw pearl onions on the market are still about four times bigger than the largest you will see in store-bought jars. So the influence a single onion has on a Gibson is profound. The garnish genuinely contributes to the character profile of the cocktail. It's not merely a surprise treat you get at the bottle of the glass; its impact is felt from the first sip. Gibsons are no longer all about gin-soaked onions, but also onion-tinged gin. And that's a good thing—trust me.