Last night I went to The Gibson, DC’s newest cocktail bar, for their soft opening. The Gibson is a project of Derek Brown of the Museum of the American Cocktail; I haven’t gotten a full run-down of who else is involved, but clearly the bar is a labor of love for all involved. Derek has encyclopedic knowledge of cocktails and mixology history. I first met him at the Tabard Inn, where he was one of the lecturers in a seminar on historic hotel bar cocktails. He helped me get into the DC cocktail scene and I’ve been looking forward to The Gibson’s opening since he first told me about it.
The Gibson is located on the corner of 14th & U St, right next to Marvin. It’s a simple black door that could probably be tagged with the label of a speakeasy if you wanted to. My guess is The Gibson will be a hit and it’s discrete signage won’t really slow it’s growth. And if you’re the sort of person who gets a kick out of just being at a place that’s somewhat like a speakeasy, you’re missing the point of The Gibson — the well crafted cocktails.
After entering, you walk into a clean and simple bar. It’s a fairly open space, but by not crowding in too many seats or too large a bar, it maintains a high degree of intimacy. The interior is black, with red benches, and leather studded bar stools and chairs. While the bar is simple at first blush, you begin to notice an incredible attention to detail as you spend more time in the space. First, the bar itself has wood railing, but is inlaid with black tooled leather. I’ve never seen that level of detail in a bar and I was immediately impressed by it. The next detail that I noticed was the antique-style bare light bulbs used around the bar. I have a big thing for bare light bulbs that have large, intricate filaments – I’ve always thought they convey class and style with their simplicity (do you get a recurring theme here?) and it works well at The Gibson.
The last detail that merits mentioning is one that really blew me away. The Gibson is basically two rooms: the front room has the bar and a number of booths, while the back room is all tables and benches. While I started at the bar, when my full party had arrived we moved into the back room. The ceiling of the back room is divided into large checkers, with alternating colors of red, yellow, and orange. Centered in each panel is a bare bulb chandelier, which is mounted to a tiered, floral molding that’s painted black. Here’s the kick: the molding details between each tier are painted to match the color of the panel they are centered on. This blew me away, simply because we’re effectively talking about traced borders on a tiny portion of the molding. Serious attention to detail, people.
I went to The Gibson with three close friends. None of them are cocktail junkies like me, but all can appreciate a good drink and were curious to try out a new, different kind of bar. But to enjoy the cocktails, you have to get the setting right. It’s hard to sip a stemmed cocktail glass, filled with $14 of goodness, when you’re standing elbow to elbow with the DC junior lobbyist corps. That’s why the ambiance of a bar that seeks to serve well crafted cocktails is so important. The Gibson only has about 40 seats, though they could easily fit a few more if they wanted to and the layout is spacious enough that they could also easily cram in a couple hundred people standing if they wanted to. But that’s not the point and they’re wise to avoid over-filling the bar.
What made The Gibson fun is that its intimate atmosphere allows you to really enjoy the drinks with friends. Each order made the cocktail the focus of discussion at our table. We shared tastes and tried to identify what we liked and didn’t like. Derek and members of the staff frequently came to talk to us, check on how we were enjoying ourselves, and geek out over the menu. This sort of atmosphere is what makes the cocktail scene fun. I have a lot of fun introducing friends to a new sort of drink and watching them discover well crafted cocktails for the first time. To the extent that The Gibson seeks to be a place for people to come together and celebrate good drink, they’ve succeeded at this.
Now, on to the drinks. Between four people, we did a pretty serious job on the menu. During the soft launch, The Gibson has 15 cocktails, plus a wine list. The menu is organized by Vodka/Gin, Rum/Tequila, Whiskey/Whisky, Brandy/Other Spirits, and Bubbles. It’s very traditional, with classic drinks and nothing too outrageous. I expect that the menu will continue to expand and find more ways to twist classic recipes in new ways. That said, the menu grew on me intensely over the course of the night and I walked away thoroughly impressed with its scope and depth.
First, as a disclosure, I wasn’t taking good notes about what pictures were what, though I *think* I got it right.
I started off with a Rhum Manhattan, made with Neisson Rhum Agricole Reserve, Carpano Antica, and The Bitter Truth Orange Bitters. This was a monster cocktail and a serious first-step into the night. I’d never had a rum-based manhattan, but I think this drink is a real success. The Neisson gives the drink a light and warm taste, which was great coming in from a cold DC night. The Rhum Manhattan was definitnely a starting place of comfort for me, as I’ve been drinking manhattans for a long while and it was an easy way to begin the night, albeit with a very strong drink.
The next drink up was the Martinez, made with Old Tom Gin, Carpano Antica, Luxardo Maraschino, and orange bitters. The Carpano Antica and the maraschino really played well together and Old Tom Gin didn’t overpower the fruit flavors. The cocktail has a nice mix of orange, grapefruit, clove, and vanilla flavors. The gin almost disappears in the mix, which is pretty remarkable given how intense Old Tom is. I hadn’t had it before and Derek brought out a taste of it. Having the straight Old Tom made me even more impressed with what was achieved in the Martinez.
I decided to change things up and move towards what looked to be a lighter drink next, a Tequila Orchard. The recipe includes Partida Reposado Tequila, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, organic apple juice, lime, and Bitter Truth aromatic bitters. It was served in a highball filled with crushed ice and garnished with a mint leaf and an apple. When I first looked at the menu, this stood out as the drink that looked most interesting and had the most potential. Unfortunately this was the one place in the night where I thought the drink fell flat. I’m guessing it was a first-night kink, but while the Tequila Orchard started off very light and accessible, it didn’t seem balanced. It was heavy on the lime and the Domaine de Canton was pretty much non-existent. Worse, the drink was seriously bruised by the time I was halfway through it, leaving it watery. Again, I think this was a problem with it being the first night, but what I would have loved was a stronger ginger taste, a bit more tequila kick, and a more noticeable apple flavor. That said, it was a beautiful cocktail and one that I’ll be having again down the road and expecting a different result.
I can’t remember where I saw it, but in one of the early posts about The Gibson, I read about a cocktail that heavily featured celery and celery bitters. That cocktail is the Salad Days Sour, which is made with celery-infused Macchu Pisco, lemon, celery bitters, and burnt cinnamon. It’s garnished with a carrot twist and served in a cocktail glass. In our exploration of The Gibson’s menu last night, I’d say this was the most creative and adventurous drink on the menu. Pisco is a Peruvian liquor made from distilled grapes that I’d never previously encountered. The drink had a very nice foamy head. It has heavy cinnamon, celery, and lemon flavors that work together in a very straightforward way. The burnt flavor to the cinnamon compliments the sour really well. I don’t recall exactly why, but in my notes I noted that there is a thick, creaminess to this cocktail reminiscent of drinks that use egg whites. This was one of my favorite drinks on the menu.
My final drink of the night was a Brunswick Sour, which is made with Appleton Estate White Rum, lime, and a merlot float. This drink was a great example of The Gibson’s menu taking very simple drink and doing it perfectly. This is a nice sour, but the merlot float gives an intense sweet to compliment the sour of the lime. In any event, it was a great drink that I’d never had before, which is doubly fun. (Ed.: An earlier version of this post had incorrectly attributed a line from my notes on the Salad Days Sour to the Brunswick Sour. It’s been moved to the previous paragraph)
Other drinks of the night that my friends had, but I won’t be reviewing were the Jackalope, Sazerac, Old Fashioned, and the Boothby Manhattan* – the last of which isn’t on the menu, but was very popular. Lastly, I shared a London Special Variation with a friend at the end of the night (not really sure it counts as my drink, but whatever). This turned out to be my favorite drink. The London Special Variation is made with Beefeater Dry Gin, Ramos Pinto White Port, Bergamot Syrup, and a Champagne float. It was pretty much a perfect cocktail in my book — there was great play between the gin, port, orange and champagne flavors. I’d never encountered Bergamot syrup before — it’s an orange fruit used in earl grey tea. What made this so great, though, was that it was special. It was a unique flavor palette with a rare syrup and a very creative incorporation of champagne into what would have still been a good cocktail without it. This is the type of creativity that I think will be the hallmark of The Gibson and it’s what I’m really looking forward to as the bar develops and thrives.
I’ll be honest, when I first saw the menu I was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t bigger and more aggressive. But as we explored it and tried different drinks, it really grew on me. There’s a lot of different things to try and different directions to go in. Though I started with a drink that’s pretty closely in line with my regular choices — the Rhum Manhattan — I had more and more fun as I tasted drinks that I’d never usually order. That’s why the Salad Days Sour, Brunswick Sour, and London Special Variation were so great — I came upon them by putting my trust in the bartender and the care that has been put into assembling a selection of drinks that are delicious and unique. That’s the tactic that I encourage friends and readers of this blog to take when visiting with quality mixologists and it’s no surprise that when I went in that direction, I had a better experience.
The Gibson is continuing it’s soft launch, likely through this weekend. I’ll probably be back there soon and will give further updates as I explore the menu in greater detail. In the meantime, I highly recommend you make a reservation and visit The Gibson.
*See an explanation in the comments section.
Update: Go below the fold for a scanned copy of The Gibson’s menu.