Keep It Classic


by Jacob Hall, Gibson General Manager


The Gibson has been doing cocktails for ten years. At an important crossroads it went even deeper into its focus on timeless styles of drink making.

This is a story of how that decision came to be, how the program adheres to that vision, and the wisdom of following the classics.

Sometimes to go forward you look back. That is the core of renewal--something that was always there returning slightly different, by incorporating the new into the best of the old. To dig into your history and rediscover the wisdom of the past is a revolution, a literal cycle, of history. Renewal is wonderful to see and fantastic to be a part of. To dig into history and rediscover the wisdom of the past is a revolution, a literal cycle, of history.

It would be no exaggeration to say the Gibson’s ties to its past were effectively severed in recent years. Recently, none of the remaining staff had ever worked with the founding generation or been directly exposed to the bar’s performance in its greatest years. The bar had lost its way and would only find it again by looking back.

When I took over the Gibson in August of 2018, the first thing I did was present its owner with a choice. As bar-owners go, Eric Hilton imposes few creative constraints on his properties. In the case of the Gibson, even fewer. That looked like a problem to me, because the bar desperately needed a vision for the future of its program. It had been drifting for years, and to corral a renaissance we needed an organizing focus that had the blessing of the owners and senior management.

“When we opened in 2008, hardly anyone in this city had heard of an Old Fashioned; old cocktails were new for pretty much everyone,” my ultimatum began. “That’s not true anymore. You can get half-decent Old Fashioneds at practically every bar and restaurant in a four block radius. They’re not exactly as good as ours, but most people don’t care. In 2008, Gibson cocktails were pre-Prohibition focused and revolutionary at the same time--in 2018 it’s impossible to be both.”

I had been thinking about this dilemma for two weeks before returning to the city to take the job. On a long drive back from downeast Maine I had concluded the cocktail revolution was marching on without us (see this edition’s interview with Ryan Chetiywardana). New concepts, new bars, and new neighborhoods were springing up in DC every quarter while the Gibson languished in the quaint niche of drinks originating before the invention of penicillin (the drug, not the modern cocktail). I had resolved to convince the owners to unshackle the bar from its founding raison d’etre and commit to the creative melee of gastro-biological inventiveness.

The cocktail revolution was marching on without us

“Yeah,” Eric said, “It’s funny. Music from fifty years ago is so much better than music today. Even the new stuff I do listen to doesn’t stand up. And as a creative field I feel like cocktails are probably the same. Maybe we should just keep it focused on that classic style.”

That classic style. It wasn’t even really a decision. It was essentially speculative--a gut instinct rendered as preference. Bosses, to say nothing of owners, all develop the ability to mask directives with the intonation of suggestion, so as to tell you exactly what they want without using the verbiage of instruction. This wasn’t that. Eric was casually extolling the creative merit of timeless allure. There was plenty of room to argue my point, but I didn’t want to because he was right.

The mandate to restore the classic parameters of the Gibson was immediately impactful. It steered the search for creative talent to revitalize the Gibson by filtering for people who understood cocktails from their classic or foundational principles. Very few people grasp that the first golden age of cocktails occurred in the mid-to-late 1800s. Beloved classics like the Old Fashioned and Sazerac preceded commercial electricity as products of the industrial revolution--and while that might seem like an interesting historical parenthetical to most, there are relevant creative insights to be drawn from such knowledge. Julia Ebell was someone who understood classics. Her skill and thirst for knowledge stood out in what is widely accepted as the Gibson’s most accomplished period--the years of management under Jonathan Harris. 

The first golden age of cocktails occurred in the mid-to-late 1800s

Jon deserves his own place in this saga as he was, by unanimous account of everyone who worked with him, a virtuoso. He had attended the London School of Economics on a music scholarship, graduated into financial analysis at Goldman Sachs, and come to work at the Gibson through some manner of disenchantment in the aftermath of the financial crisis. He took the training program initiated by Derek Brown and executed it to a standard that successive generations of Gibson bartenders would learn under.

Julia was the largest beneficiary of that effort. Of the many people who worked with Jon, she was his true peer in enthusiasm for the history and soul of mixing spirits. She paid a high price for that when Jon and the Gibson parted ways on poor terms (all forgiven years later though). The managers assumed she would release the same measure of creative destruction as Jon and boxed her out. Sensing this, she promptly moved on. For years she went to other bars, looking for the creative outlet and peers she had enjoyed at the Gibson and not finding it.

When I reached out to her about returning to the Gibson, I understood it to be a long shot. She was gainfully, if not happily, employed at a hotel bar downtown making far more than she would as Gibson’s creative director. She’d be signing on to rebuild the beverage program essentially from scratch, and at a time when the Gibson had less stature than competing programs. Attracting talented people would be a daunting challenge and in the midst of a city-wide bar and restaurant oversaturation there was very little appetite to invest money into the program.

I wasn’t entirely sure why she said yes. Over the following months, I realized it was probably easier to hire her than it should have been for a number of reasons, persistent industry sexism not least among them (see this edition’s Booze: As Made By Women and Brenne Single Malt). She later confided that her tenure as a DC bartender featured a long streak of job interviews, by men and women, wherein her plans of child-rearing were a matter of professional interest. I did refrain from asking that in her interview, but not because I already knew her answer. In fact, I now regard the imbalance in talented women to talented men hired under my tenure (four to one) as a measure of how strong that gender-filtering effect must still be and how the hiring at an operation dedicated to performance will likely skew in 2019.

Perhaps a month after she had returned to “the family,” Julia and I were deliberating how our new program would entertain more modern practices, bar equipment, and conventions. These conversations are like a three-step dance for us. Step one, start with an off-hand question related to a problem we’re having. Step two, spiral out into a philosophical dialectic on some principle of hospitality. Step three, distill it down to a practical and instructive imperative.

It elevates the craft so there’s a kind of evolution to it

My question to Julia was:  how do we distinguish practices that belong to a “classic” cocktail program from ones that don’t? This was a critical distinction for me, because that line demarcates the classic from the experimentally modern. As important as the things a creative venture does do are the things it doesn’t do, and per my own plan it was important to be able to communicate the difference to staff, patrons, partners, and stakeholders.

“Well, I like to think of it as a conversation with history,” she offered.

A conversation. With history.

“Huh.” Huh.

“It’s like, all these generations of bartenders before us did things a certain way,” she continued. “They made certain drinks because they worked. And it’s extremely egotistical to come along and just assume, Hey, I’ve been doing this for two months but I’m probably better than that.

Classic step-two of the dance:  damn near moral condemnation of bartenders ignoring the history of their craft. Of course, when you pull back and scale up on the value of hospitality (as Julia and I had done numerous times), you spot in bars a necessary haven for people beleaguered by their daily grind--a release valve for societal pressures. Bartenders may not save lives or put out fires, but doctors and firefighters need to blow off steam somewhere. And in my time running the Gibson we have hosted two wakes; no one witnessing the gravity of those events could hope to argue that bars cannot serve a deep emotional and communal purpose. In such terms, it’s easier to take the trade more seriously. But I digress, as many intervening points in this conversation did until this one:

“Ok, but like, simple syrup,” I latched onto a concrete notion for dear life. “Bartenders used to just muddle sugar cubes into cocktails and at some point they traded to using syrup. How is that not a departure from classic cocktail convention?” She paused, but not for long.

“Well that’s the thing. Over time different practices emerge and it’s a matter of whether it simplifies the process or makes it better versus just complicating it for the sake of standing out. Simple syrup is easy to make, incorporates into cold liquid easier than sugar cubes, and can be measured into cocktails more consistently. It elevates the craft so there’s a kind of evolution to it.”

“So we’ll experiment with new practices and adopt the ones that work?”

“Oh yeah! We’ll always try new things--just probably not first. I see us as a bar that validates whether something belongs to the bartending cannon or not.”

Boom. Step-three. We had worked our way through the Socratic dialectic of what makes an Old Fashioned an Old Fashioned to a simple prescription for our cocktail program:  learn from the past, be wary of the present, and teach the future. In a world and era obsessed with the newness of “innovation,” Julia made the case for the elegance of well-worn ways. For the Gibson, she was the case.

Looking back on the conversation with Eric, I appreciate that I had been on the wrong side of history, so to speak. Had I advocated more firmly for a program decoupled from Gibson’s past, what would have happened? Very im-probably anything as good as what did. 

A creative act need not be a departure from the past, but can quite naturally be a continuation of it. That point is routinely lost on fiery youths (myself among them). The wisdom of history often discourages our most obvious 'innovations,' and so it makes for easy dismissal. In the end though, all our innovations are judged by that same sweep of history, and that marks a great point about a renewal:  you'll always find one when you keep it classic.