It’d be fair to say that there’s some understandable pressure surrounding the opening of The Gibson. EC1’s latest trendy cocktail bar comes from Marian Beke, formerly bar manager at Nightjar, just down the road, for five years. Nightjar quickly became one of London’s most talked about bars, earning cred not only for its quality cocktails but also its inventive presentation and a secretive, you’ve-got-to-be-in-the-know location. Though now just about everybody knows, so the secret is firmly out.
Fans of Nightjar will find themselves in resolutely familiar territory. Those who’ve never tried Beke’s drinks before will more likely find themselves utterly baffled. The daunting menu is divided by the calendar months (each given in their old Anglo-Saxon name, naturally) – perfect for the indecisive drinker, who can simply use the date to pick their tipple.
The décor lands somewhere vaguely around prohibition, as is de rigueur for the capital’s cocktail bars, though there’s a stronger emphasis on the period’s art deco influences, captured in angular illustrations, refractive lights and mirrored tables throughout.
The more alcoholic among us might have guessed that the bar draws its name from the eponymous drink, a variant on the martini garnished with a pickled onion. Reassuringly, The Gibson does indeed serve a pretty mean Gibson, crisp Tanqueray gin mellowed by Mancino vermouth and cut through by the sweet, tangy house-pickled onion.
Beyond the classics, The Gibson gets a little more adventurous. The Electric Earl takes the well-worn combination of gin and citrus, but spices it up by adding Earl Grey liqueur; a small flower bud that floods the tongue with a tingling, buzzing sensation; and serving the whole thing in a bloody lightbulb on a stem. Your reaction to the prospect of drinking out of a lightbulb may be a helpful guide to your prospects of enjoying an evening at The Gibson – love it or hate it, there’s more of that to come.
The smoky, spiced Way of the Dragon is served alongside a metal dragon blowing a steady stream of smoke, topped with smoked (and admittedly slightly burnt) slices of dragonfruit. Big in Japan is capped by a small wood fire, toasting some lotus seeds. The Miller’s Tale uses bee-infused spirits (yes, bee), while December’s Minc’d Pye is served alongside a mince pie made according to a traditional recipe using real minced meat.
This insistence on the strange and boundary pushing might be tiresome in lesser hands, but it’s hard to complain when the drinks are so consistently exceptional. The fragrant, honeyed Miller’s Tale was fresh with citrus, quickly banishing any mean-spirited comparisons to Lemsip lurking in the back of the mind. The Electric Earl was the drink every gin and tonic wishes it could be, balanced bitterness with a silky smooth finish.
Drinks are accompanied by crumbly, dense parmigiano reggiano, presumably one of the few bar snacks able to stand up to the array of flavours being served up by the bar staff. The aforementioned house pickle was put to further good use on a selection of mushrooms, cornichons and tomatoes, the latter in particular bursting with punchy flavour, while there was the usual array of nuts and olives for the grazers among us.
If the majority of The Gibson’s drinks never quite taste as strange as the menu might lead you to believe, that is perhaps a testament to the talent behind the bar, wrangling a bewildering selection of ingredients into something the human palate knows how to handle. That’s how Nightjar made its name, and it looks like The Gibson may well be set on the same track.
Words by Dom Preston