Combining gin, dry vermouth and a pickled pearl onion garnish, the Gibson is an umami-rich, edgy alternative to the traditional Martini. This week, we’re dialling the umami-factor up a notch with the Roku Gibson, a Japanese twist on the serve featuring fresh ginger and sushi vinegar. 

The question of ‘who invented the Gibson?’ is best answered with, ‘who didn’t?’. Like many classic cocktails, there are differing theories about its genesis, with almost any influential urbanite with the surname Gibson receiving credit. One theory states the Gibson was invented by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson in the early 1900s, when he asked for an improvement on a Martini at The Players club in New York, while another claims stockbroker Walter Campbell Gibson first ordered the drink at the Ritz Hotel in Paris.

So who did invent the Gibson?

American diplomat and teetotaller Hugh S. Gibson is also implicated in its conception, and is said to have asked for a Martini glass filled with cold water and garnished with an onion to distinguish his drink from the rest at the Metropolitan Club in Washington. Another unnamed Gibson – an investment banker – is said to have ordered the same non-alcoholic iteration during the ‘three-Martini lunch’ phenomenon to stay sober and level-headed as his clients became increasingly sozzled. 

These are just a handful of historic Gibsons who have laid claim to the serve. As it stands, the most widely-accepted origin story involves San Francisco businessman Walter D. K. Gibson, who is said to have created the drink at the Bohemian Club in the 1890s, some 40 years before Charles Dana Gibson propped up the bar at The Players. According to the descendants of this particular Gibson, he preferred his Martini with an onion, as he believed the root vegetable would prevent colds. 

Whatever the true history of the drink may be, the first published reference to the Gibson recipe is in William Boothby’s 1908 book The World’s Drinks And How To Mix Them, as follows: “Into a small mixing-glass place some cracked ice, half a jigger of French vermouth and half a jigger of dry English gin; stir thoroughly until cold, strain into a cocktail glass and serve. NOTE.- no bitters should ever be used in making this drink, but an olive is sometimes added.”

What, no onion?

At this time, it was customary to add a dash or two of bitters to a Martini, hence the clarification at the end for the recipe. However,  there’s no mention of an onion garnish, it would be several decades before this aspect of the serve would become a staple part of the Gibson’s recipe. Eventually, the Martini dropped its bitters, and the Gibson’s savoury garnish came to distinguish the drink from its cocktail cousin in all its earthy, sour glory. 

Where the onion brings an umami undertone to the classic Martini, this twist from Japan’s Roku Gin takes the savoury flavours one step further with the addition of fresh ginger and sushi vinegar (also known as rice vinegar). Interestingly, umami – the fifth taste, joining sweet, sour, salty and bitter – was scientifically identified by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda back in 1907. Ikeda, a professor at  Tokyo Imperial University, noticed that the taste of kombu dashi was distinct from the existing flavour categories, and named his discovery umami, meaning “pleasant savoury taste”. So it’s a fitting twist.

“When combined with dry vermouth in a Martini-style serve, Roku Gin is beautifully balanced with floral notes and citrus, which we have taken to the next level with the addition of flavours reminiscent of Japanese pickled ginger,” says James Bowker, UK brand ambassador for House of Suntory. “Using fresh ginger with sushi vinegar provides both the vibrancy of ginger alongside the gentle sweet and sour acidity of the vinegar, creating a perfectly Japanese expression of the classic Gibson.”

Pickle your own

When it comes to garnishing the drink, rather than reaching for a jar of limp pre-pickled onions, try pickling your own at home with salt, malt vinegar and honey (plus fresh herbs and chillies, if you feel adventurous). Not only will they be fresher and crunchier, but they’ll bring a level of depth and complexity to the drink that the shop-bought versions lack. 

As home cocktails go, the Roku Gibson is as straightforward and stylish as they come. “It is an incredibly simple serve which utilises ingredients found in most supermarkets,” says Bowker. “Yet, for such an easy to make drink it has a complexity that demonstrates the best of both British and Japanese bartending traditions.”

50ml Roku Gin
10ml Dolin dry vermouth
1 slice fresh ginger
1 drop sushi vinegar

Add the ingredients into a mixing glass with ice and stir until well-chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a pickled onion.