How To Make Your Own Pickled Onions For Cocktail Garnishes

Food & Drink

I’m not much of a dirty Martini fan, but I loves me a Gibson. A Gibson—a Martini at its core with an onion instead of a twist or olive—is one of those cocktails that came up in the late 19th or early 20th century that has many origin theories that vary by year, place and time according to various newspaper mentions. But at some point, somewhere, someone (or several someones at different times at different bars in different cities), substituted an onion for an olive, and named the drink after someone whose last name is Gibson.*

I was thrilled to see the cocktail popularized in the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, which takes place in the cocktail’s heyday, in the swinging Martini era of the late 1950s and ‘60s. Sure, you can blame the blender-iffic, synthetic juice cocktail era of the ‘70s and ‘80s on its fade from drinking culture. However there’s another compelling reason why it went away. 

The pickled onions at most bars were pretty gross. 

The onions, if a bar even had them, were probably sprouting fuzzy grand-onions by the time the dusty, unrefrigerated jar was loosened. If you had even heard of it, The Gibson became something you ordered on a dare. 

However, with fresh ingredient cocktail culture on the rise since the mid 1990s, cocktail nerds were taken with the Gibson once again. A good bar will stock quality onions, and there are some very good jarred ones available these days (though you likely have to order them online). What was a game changer for me, was visiting bars in New York that pickled their own Gibson onions. I suddenly became a Gibson snob, making a running list of those venues. (Otherwise, I’ll just have a gin Martini with a twist instead). 

When lockdown started in earnest and I could no longer visit my favorite bars, I started making my own pickled onions so I could relax with a Gibson (while watching Cheers to approximate that bar-ry vibe) at home. After a few tweaks, I’ve honed my onion recipe, as well as my favorite specs for the Gibson itself.

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Aside from that cocktail, the onions make delicious garnishes for Bloody Marys, Micheladas or other types of savory drinks (with or without alcohol). I also love them sliced up for sandwiches, salads, tacos or as garnishes for black bean soup or chilli. 

Amanda’s Pickled Pearl Onions***

You can play with the spices here, using whatever is on hand, though the pepper is essential, as is the vinegar, even if you only use one kind. Don’t have white wine to spare? You can use dry vermouth, dry sherry (Fino or Manzanilla) or dry marsala. Or just add more water. 

For the onions, I prefer using red pearl onions, which is also the preference at Dear Irving in New York City. They’re real lookers in the glass. But if you prefer the pearl essence of white onions, stick to white wine and/or rice vinegar so they don’t get stained as they pickle. 

  • 1 tsp. whole peppercorns, black or multicolored
  • 5 cardamom pods
  • 5 dried allspice berries
  • 2 dried bayleaves 
  • 3 or 4 sprigs of fresh thyme (or a tsp dried)
  • 1 cup dry white wine (use one you would drink on its own) 
  • 1 cup of vinegar, divided amongst a variety of styles (I use ¼ cup each sherry, balsamic, rice vinegar and red wine vinegar for my red onions, but you can also use other vinegars like apple cider or champagne)
  • 1 ½ cups water
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • Tablespoon of coarse salt 
  • 10 oz. of small, pearl onions, ends cut off and carefully peeled smooth 
  • A couple of gratings of nutmeg

Sterilize a jar large enough to hold 3 ½ cups of liquid and its lid for 15 minutes in boiling water. Remove with tongs and set, mouth side up, on a paper towel. Add the dry spices and thyme to the jar. 

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, bring the liquids, sugar, and salt to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the sugar is dissolved. Add the onions and cook for one minute.

Transfer all to the jar and grate the nutmeg over. Cover tightly. Allow to cool. Give it a gentle shake and turn upside down and back again a few times. Place in the fridge. They’re ready to rock the next day! They’ll store in the fridge for about a month to six weeks. 

Gibson Cocktail

My preference is for gin, but you could use vodka. Obviously, not a fruit-flavored one. 

Note: this is a delicious early evening cocktail, but a strong one, although it’s not going to make you see ceiling chess.  

  • 2 oz dry gin of choice (this drink is best with a straightforward, classic or savory style to compliment the onions, as opposed to a fruity gin) 
  • ½ oz very dry, not too aromatic vermouth (see list below)
  • 2 to 3 dashes orange bitters 
  • bar spoon of onion brine (optional) 
  • Garnish: an odd number of pickled pearl onions (because using an even number is said to be bad luck, and we can’t have that now, can we?)

In a mixing glass, stir the gin and vermouth with ice until well-chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Take as many of the onions as you wish in that odd number—one, three, five, etc.—thread them on a cocktail pick if you have one—and place in the glass. Add a little spoon of brine and stir (optional, but yummy). 

Gibson-friendly vermouth

These are some of the most appropriate vermouths for your Gibson, or to use in the brine, since they are not too sweet or herbaceous. You want one that’s crisp, very dry, with soft aromatics that won’t clash with your lovely homemade pickled onions. And fresh! If it’s been open a few weeks, definitely open a new bottle, and keep the rest in the fridge (tip: buy the smallest bottle you need). Trust me. The cocktail snobs are right about this one. 

*There is some speculation the Gibson cocktail first emerged sans onion. Although that version perplexes me since it feels like a huge flavor profile leap between an olive-less Martini and one with an onion instead of a twist. 

**I really wanted to call these “Amanda’s Funions”, but obviously there are copyright, and other issues, with that name. But yes, you can have lots of fun with these! Cheers!

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