Gibson Martini – What are those things doing in my drink?

gibsonThe Gibson Martini is generally made with gin (or vodka), vermouth and a few pickled onions referred to as pearl onions.

In the great debate as to how to garnish a martini – what type of olive, stuffed or plain, how many – the Gibson, known for pearl onions, has been somewhat obscured. While originally branded for the association with Gibson Gin, the Gibson is now identified for those cute little white things regardless of the booze used.

As a public service to drinkers everywhere, here is the Gibson story. Or, should I say, stories.

First, while martinis are found all over film, books and TV (think James Bond), the poor Gibson is kind of obscure. Best I could come up with was the occasional drink by Roger Sterling in Mad Men, Cary Grant in North by Northwest, a Frasier episode (Stoli Gibson with three pearl onions) and not much else.

What I find fascinating about the Gibson, are the stories about how the drink came about. I found three.pearl onions

The most common one is linked to the 1930s and Charles Dana Gibson, the illustrator known for the Gibson Girl images. As the story goes, he challenged a bartender named Charlie Connolly at New York’s Players Club to create a “different drink.” The result was garnishing a martini with cocktail onions that became know as the Gibson.

Nah, I’m not buying it. Sounds like it came from some old school press agent.

The second one goes back 40 years prior to this. Mr. Walter D K Gibson is supposed to have had the first martini named in his honor at the Bohemian Club in San Francisco. Apparently, this gentleman didn’t like the way they prepared gin martinis so he specified the brand and had them add pearl onions. Also, he believed eating onions would prevent colds.

I’m not buying this one either.

The story I subscribe to came from a good barman friend and we all know that the stories told over a bar are more accurate than anything on the Internet, not to mention other sources.

As Adam D. tells it, a savvy businessman and banker in the 50’s and 60s often found himself out with clients for the proverbial three-martini lunch. Unable to function during and after the meal, he had the bartender serve him cold water so he could remain sober while his clients got shit-faced. The cocktail onion was used as garnish so his beverage could be distinguished from the others. The banker’s name was Gibson.

Now, there’s a story I can believe.



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Cutty Sark and the Real McCoy

Cutty-Sark_bannerWine and Spirits Daily had an interview with the global head honcho of Cutty sark, which is owned by The Edrington Group (Macallan, Famous Grouse, others). In the interview and a previous story, he talks of the turnaround of the brand. In fact, he predicts 5% or higher growth over the next five to ten years.

Is this hype or real?

Cutty+sarkLet’s take a close look. After all, this is a brand that has had 25 years of decline from 2 million cases in the 1950s and 60s to less than 150,000 recently.

What the brand has going for it is the recent movement to Remy Cointreau and their knowledge and focus on scotch. They should be able to push the brand as part of their scotch portfolio and have a vested interest in keeping the Edrington people happy. So check the box on leverage and clout.

A number of side benefits also come with the move to Remy. As a new brand with a full, strong portfolio behind them, they will fill distribution gaps and move into important brand building accounts.

But, wait a minute, isn’t it a bit early to declare victory on the path to a turnaround? From the data I saw, for the four-week’s performance to Feb 24, the brand grew in SymphonyIRI data by 3.2% compared to a -5% for the year.

1967 ad
1967 ad

What about the consumer? What are the motivations that Cutty Sark provides to get a call for it? WSD suggest that its occasional presence on Mad Men, and the retro drinking influence may be helping. That could be, but is it enough?

As I read the article, I became more and more puzzled by the empty pronouncements of success just over the horizon. I can’t figure out the basis on which young consumers are discovering Cutty Sark. Is there a cocktail or signature drink that’s driving the brand? We’re told that Cutty “was created to be easy-drinking, easy-mixing and not particularly challenging.” So is water.

Here’s my favorite quote and an example of world-class marketing BS – “For me, I’m not looking to take business {from} the Scotch category, I’m already seeing us take business in bars from the Irish category.” Really? Cutty Sark is taking business from brands like Jameson that is among the fastest growing brands in the country?

Cutty Sark is an excellent brand with an interesting history. Legend has it that it was Cutty Sark that helped to create the expression the Real McCoy. The story goes back to prohibition and I found it here.

“One man who regularly sailed between Nassau and Rum Row was Captain William McCoy, of Scots origin and living in Florida, who began running liquor in 1921 using a schooner named Arethusa. By this time suppliers and distillers were often meeting the immense consumer demand with very poor quality liquor, and McCoy decided to make his reputation by supplying high quality products, chiefly Scotch whisky. This strategy worked well, to the considerable financial benefit of McCoy, whose name entered the English language as a result of the reputation he acquired.”

“In particular, McCoy ran large quantities of Cutty Sark…”

So there you have it. A brand built on authenticity and known as the Real McCoy
 is the subject of hype and marketing BS today.

Hey, Mr. Global Head Honcho of Cutty Sark: you have a brand with a great story. Why not try to leverage that provenance instead of making empty claims?

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Scotch: Blends, Malts and Your Father

dewars distillery

Single malts have driven the Scotch category for more than a decade with steady and consistent growth. Brands like The Glenlivet, The Macallan, Glenfiddich and Glenmorangie seem to drive malts and, in turn, malts drive US scotches.

Blended whisky is still the backbone of scotch, but even brands like Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s and Chivas Regal can’t seem to stop the hemorrhaging of this segment.

What does this have to do with your father?

Well, back in the day, those in the booze business felt that given 1) the difficulty of overcoming the taste hurdle of scotch and 2) it’s lack of mixability — if you found a scotch drinker, then you can be sure that his/her father introduced them to it.

That’s a problem today since most fathers stopped (or never started) drinking scotch in the first place. Besides, “my father’s scotch” is right up there with Oldsmobile. So much for modern day mentorship as a motivator for drinking scotch.

DHH Bottle FinalEnter Dewar’s Highlander Honey, the subject of my last posting.

I gave many reasons why I see this as a success so I won’t repeat them. Scroll down and see for yourself.

However, since writing that post, I’ve had occasion to speak with Arvind Krishnan, VP Brand Managing Director, Dewar’s and to taste the product along with some friends and scotch aficionados.

First, the Dewar’s people have done a great job of blending the taste of Dewar’s with fantastic notes of honey. This stuff is not artificial tasting and, the honey and scotch combine to provide a whole new flavor. As a result, they have also combined experience and exploration – as in the experience of enjoying scotch and the discovery of how pleasant and desirable it can be.

Here are two thoughts on the flavored spirits world. The Huffington Post wrote this week about flavored vodka under the heading, Flavored Vodka Companies Continue To Debut New Flavors, But Why? You can find it here.


When you get away from the kiddie flavors in vodka, you come across serious flavored American whiskies that are growing rapidly. Just this week I read that Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey has sold close to 500,000 cases in just two years.

I predict that not only will Dewar’s Highlander Honey succeed but also there will be a host of others on the market in the not too distant future. You can bet on it.

Oh, and that taste test?

It’s best summed up by the statement one non-scotch drinker made, “I had no idea scotch could taste so good.”


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