The bar—opened by Eric Hilton, the man behind 18th Street Lounge and Marvin, and designed by Brian Miller—has a retro vibe, with dim lighting, plush booths, and wood paneling. The nostalgic ambience is matched by a cocktail menu that harkens back to the golden days of cocktails.
“We have a base on classic cocktails,” says Brown. “The Sazerac, the Martinez, the Manhattan, the old-fashioned—all from that great period for bartending between the 1860s and Prohibition.”
Not that classics are all you’ll find at this speakeasy-style bar. “We tried to pull ideas from the whole gamut of cocktails,” Brown says. “There have been great cocktails made since the golden era. Even during the 1980s—one of the worst periods for cocktails, when you had sickly-sweet drinks—some good drinks were made.”
The staff at the Gibson, which includes former PS 7’s bartender Tiffany Short, also let their creativity reign loose with cocktails such as the Salad Days Sour, a reinterpretation of the pisco sour that spices the old cocktail by infusing it with celery and garnishing it with a burnt dusting of cinnamon and a carrot twist—“to make it seem healthy,” Brown says.
Before taking over bar duty at the Gibson, Brown had been doing some consulting on wine lists and cocktails programs and also worked as sommelier at Komi. More recently—alongside friends and fellow bartenders Justin Guthrie and Owen Thomson—he was part of Hummingbird to Mars, the short-lived speakeasy held Sundays and Mondays on the second floor of Bourbon in Adams Morgan.
“There is something unique and special about putting effort and quality into drinks,” says Brown. “Hummingbird to Mars helped sell Eric on the idea behind the Gibson, and it also made me realize bartending is what I love and want to do.”
Technique is something Brown is diligent about when making drinks: “I don’t want to sound too geeky, but steps like the stirring of a drink are very important. You can easily tell if a drink has ice shards or not and whether it’s disjointed in terms of flavor.”
Take the Martinez. A precursor to the martini, this gin-based cocktail combines sweet vermouth with a small amount of maraschino liqueur and orange bitters. When preparing it, Brown is very methodical, paying attention to the integration of flavors and the level of dilution in the cocktail. He regulates the latter by breaking up large ice cubes into smaller bits and stirring the cocktail with a bar spoon 50 times. No more, no fewer. The drink is then served with a pickle plate, the vinegary flavors of which, Brown explains, connect well with the sweetness and the botanicals of the Martinez, making for a unusual and savory pairing.
“We’re serious about our craft,” says Brown of the Gibson staff. “But not deadly serious—we also like to have fun behind the bar.”
Check out our video of Brown making the Martinez and make sure to get the recipe.
Derek Brown, the Gibson
1½ ounces Old Tom gin
1½ ounces Dolin sweet vermouth
1 teaspoon maraschino liqueur
2 dashes orange bitters
Garnish with a flamed orange peel