Mastering the Gibson With Meaghan Dorman

In "Masters of X," we spotlight bartenders chasing perfection in one drink. Here, Meaghan Dorman of Dear Irving tackles the Gibson.

“I never really loved the Gibson all that much,” admits Meaghan Dorman, who has nonetheless created a picture-perfect version at her New York bar, Dear Irving.

Although she’s made them from time to time throughout her career—first at a sports bar and later at Lantern’s Keep, where “we definitely had a couple of Gibson drinkers”—it wasn’t until she opened New York cocktail bar Raines Law Room in 2009 that she began making them regularly. She went on to open Dear Irving in 2014, where she honed the cocktail to its current iteration. At Raines, the drink has traditionally resembled a classic Martini with an onion garnish (two parts Beefeater London Dry gin plus one part Dolin dry vermouth, finished with a garnish of commercial-brand Tipsy Onions), but when Dear Irving opened, Dorman wanted to steer the drink in a different direction.

“Raines is very classically focused and to-the-point. We don’t change recipes that much,” she explains of the distinction between the two bars. “Dear Irving is more whimsical and playful when it comes to riffs on drinks.”

As such, the bar gave her an excuse to tinker with a cocktail that she knew some people found unapproachable. “[Gibsons] can turn people off because they seem too astringent,” she notes. “I thought, I want people who don’t even drink Martinis normally to drink this Gibson.”

To address the astringency issue, Dorman softened the drink by rotating in citrusy Tanqueray 10 in place of more austere Beefeater, and Carpano Bianco vermouth in place of dry vermouth, which she favors for its botanical notes. “It’s not just a sweeter version of dry vermouth,” she says. “It really adds a lot.”

The next piece in the puzzle was the iconic garnish. Going in, she already knew she wanted the aesthetic pop of a red onion instead of white. “The red onions aren’t as harsh, and they’re beautiful,” says Dorman. She adapted her own quick-pickling recipe from one authored by Washington, D.C.-area bartender, Todd Thrasher, which she’d spotted in Imbibe magazine years earlier. With a base of Champagne vinegar, it’s sweetened with sugar and lengthened with water; additions of salt and coriander-heavy pickling spice add a savory accent. “I do think the Champagne vinegar makes a difference,” she says. “It’s so delicate.”

The brine is part of the formula, too: two scant barspoons (“a very light quarter-ounce”) are stirred into the drink. Finding the right amount took several tries; she recalls testing the levels with Tom Richter, at the time head bartender for Dear Irving, as they finalized the menu. “We decided to go a little heavier,” she says, noting that they were looking for a more savory drink.

Even so, she warns that even a little too much brine can tip the balance of the drink, and when training new staff, she advises: “It’s the most delicate two barspoons I hope you ever do in your life.”

After all of that workshopping, how did Dorman know when she had hit the mark? “The point of getting a Gibson over any other Martini is that you want that little savory onion note, without the salt of olives,” she explains. “The gin is still the hero.”

Making a Gibson at Dear Irving