MIXOLOGY BAR AWARDS Winners: The Gibson
The Gibson scooped up the prize for Best New European Bar at last year’s MIXOLOGY BAR AWARDS. In the lead-up to the MIXOLOGY BAR AWARDS 2018, we continue our look back at last year’s winners. Andrew Wilkin revisited the bar and spoke with the owner, garnish-mad Nightjar alumnus Marian Beke.
Looking at a menu packed with ingredients as idiosyncratic as cascara husk, fresh rambutan, mangosteen, and hemp cannabis, it’s hard to believe, but ask Marian Beke if The Gibson is a geek bar and you get a firm, unequivocal no. The Gibson is a bona-fide hit with industry types, but it also has widespread appeal – something that becomes clear on a visit to the bar named Best New European Bar at the MIXOLOGY BAR AWARDS 2017.
Speaking to Beke, he’s keen to emphasize first and foremost that The Gibson is more than just a cocktail bar. Beke, the Slovakian owner of The Gibson, was bar manager for five years at London’s ever-popular Nightjar, arguably the definitive subterranean Prohibition speakeasy in a wave of identical 1920s-themed nightspots. It’s clear some things – the focus on the whole experience, from music to vibe, service, and drinks – have transferred over to The Gibson.
“Above all, we try every night to be a bar that provides service that should relax you and feels personal and friendly for all our guests. And that’s far more important to us than just the cocktails,” he explains. In addition to the top-notch mixology, the gorgeously 1920’s styled bar has a pianist – with Sunday afternoons now open for live music – and a list of bar snacks including steak tartare sourced from the nearby Smithfield Market.
The Gibson bar: What’s in a name?
The thing about The Gibson – within Beke’s head, that is – is that it wasn’t always The Gibson. In a property market as expensive as London’s “you never necessarily get your dream property, you build your concept around the property you get,” Beke explains. From that point on, the entire Gibson concept emerged through a domino effect.
Beke found the venue, which came equipped with the ever-necessary A4 pub licence to sell drinks without food. The venue in Shoreditch was an old British pub in an old British neighborhood. Beke considered what he should do with the venue – that took him to gin, the most English of spirits. “So, we thought, what about theming it around the Martini,” explains Beke. “But the name Dirty Martini and most of the other variants were already taken by other bars,” which brought Beke to the Gibson, a Martini variant made with a pickled onion. Only one bar in America had used the name, and it was a rock and roll bar, so it was all systems go from that point on.
The name Gibson also refers to the artist Charles Dana Gibson’s rendering of the Gibson Girls in pen-and-ink illustrations in the late 19th and early 20th century – said to personify the ideal of feminine appeal. And what about the pickled onion in the Gibson? “We went further, and decided to also use lots of preserves, ketchups, relishes, chutneys, and brines in our cocktails,” says Beke.
Tasting the buzz
From the green tiles lining its external walls to the table tea lights and shakers adorning the windows, The Gibson is a strikingly designed space by Switzerland-based designer Helen Calle Lin. This attention to detail stretches to their long menu – their second – an adventure in discovery that takes guests on a journey through the 12 months of the year. Richer, darker, spicier flavors dominate the winter months, with the warmer months bringing more lightness, fresher flavors and clearer spirits. Then there are 12 cocktails of the month and of course their specialty Gibsons.
“What I learnt from Nightjar, is that if you change the menu entirely, people will keep asking for their favorite drinks from previous menus. So after the third year, we kept the most popular ones from previous years,” Beke says. He highlights one that made The Gibson’s sophomore menu – one which comes in true Beke style – adorned with an outside-the-box garnish. “People still love and are surprised by the buzz buttons: a Sichuan pepper flower that gives an electric, buzzing-like sensation to your mouth,” he says with a smile. “It’s been on the menu since day one and it’s a garnish for our Electric Earl cocktail (gin, earl grey liqueur, fresh grapefruit, lime, electric bitters, tonic, citrus grass cordial) served in a light bulb.”
Apothecary glasses and outlandish presentations are the order of the day – September’s Blue Mountain Mai Tai (rum, bourbon, lime, orange, nougat cream, roasted apricot, kernel amaretto, salt, mountain pepper, fudge sherry cordial) comes in a glass nestled in a tiki-style inflated flamingo. Meanwhile, October’s Scandal in Bohemia (Woodford Rye, absinthe, hemp cannabis, poppy opium oil, preserved oriental lemon brine, confetti candy syrup, jelly ice, smoking wood mushroom) shows off a glittering gold goblet, topped with a liquorice pipe and a perfectly poised playing card.
All of this could be gimmicky Instagram fodder for ever trend-obsessed Londoners, but The Gibson matches its high-end magic tricks with high-end mixology and service. Beke looks forward to debuting his forthcoming third menu in 2018. He’s expecting to it to be 40% top-sellers, with the addition of 60% brand new creations.
The perpetual preparation machine
Creating a menu like this isn’t so simple. Just a three minute walk from The Gibson is a commercial store, from which the team gathers interesting ingredients all year round. “In November, we take everything out of the basement and we do many things – for instance, from deciding whether we want a new pickling company, to visiting markets, to looking at the herbs, and tasting our new products,” Beke explains.
For each cocktail, the staff start by looking at the base ingredients, then onto the technical stuff – the gelato makers, the bread machine and more – then the garnishes, and the serving vessels at the end. It’s a menu creation process which includes the whole team and all their myriad inspirations.
It’s also worth noting that The Gibson has two people working on mise en place during the day, every day. Two employees work on preparing the ingredients and the garnishes until opening at 6pm. Then a staff member heads down to the basement kitchen area and continues cooking and preparing ingredients for the next day, checking what needs refilling or is lacking upstairs. There’s a huge amount of things to do away from the bartending itself – not surprising given the depth and wild variety of ingredients on the menu.
The Gibson’s popularity has been a slow burn
Surprisingly given Beke’s reputation, finding an audience for The Gibson wasn’t an instant slam dunk. “There were lots of industry, but not so many new people,” Beke recalls. “Externally it still looks like an old shabby pub, due to building protection laws, so walk-ins were tough.”
But The Gibson has heralded a new age for a largely unheralded – and empty – stretch of Old Street in the otherwise bar and restaurant heavy Shoreditch. “Shoreditch is still booming. Seven or eight great bars have opened up within walking distance just in the time we’ve been here,” says Beke. The awards showered on The Gibson in the past year have also helped bring customers in, especially as bar industry news begins to go more mainstream.
Taking it global?
What’s next for the bar, which has managed to extend its appeal past the geeky bartender? “Well, we’ve only just had our first birthday in January, so continuing to refine our approach,” Beke replies. But he also says that the fully-formed Gibson is something transferable – perhaps to the US or other locations in Europe. The looming spectre of Brexit is also something to consider. “But, of course in the end it all comes down to business and what our guests want,” he says with confidence. If things keep going the way they have been, Beke would be wise to keep some spare space in his award cabinet.
Foto: Photo via The Gibson.