God Save the Dubonnet
However you feel about the Queen, her favorite cocktail is pretty tasty.
So….did I miss anything happening in wine media this week? Yeah, it’s been quite a week around here, and if you did happen to miss my Tuesday piece, you can find it right here:
In any case, there are a lot of new readers here. Welcome! I don’t usually publish rants! Well, ok, to be honest I do my share of ranting—on the whiskey-fication of brandy, on the tired discourse around natural wine, on the ridiculousness of food and drink pairings, and on rum’s dark colonial legacy. With the death of the Queen yesterday, it’s probably a good time to revisit my piece about “The Rum Tasting of the Century” that I attended in London a few years ago.
Beyond that, the only thing I would like to say about the Queen is that the woman liked to drink. In fact, according to many reports, she had at least four drinks every day. The first, before lunch, would be a gin and Dubonnet with lemon, followed by a dry martini at lunch, and a glass of wine following lunch. The last would be a glass of Champagne before bed. I’m not endorsing four drinks per day, but the old girl did make it to 96.
Probably the only thing I share in common with the Queen is that I actually like Dubonnet, and the Dubonnet Cocktail is also something I enjoy (my recipe below).
So what exactly is Dubonnet? I told the Dubonnet story in Boozehound, and I believe it’s worth recounting today:
Obscure spirits become obscure for many obscure reasons. But there may be no bottle more enigmatic than this fortified wine. Its strange journey from popularity to obscurity begins with malaria; involves the French Foreign Legion, the Queen of England, and Pia Zadora; and ends with it languishing on the dusty shelves of your local liquor store.
Luckily for us, malaria hasn’t been endemic in the United States in decades. If it were, we might be better acquainted with Dubonnet and its category of wine-and-cinchona-bark-based aperitifs called quinquinas.
Long before the days of modern medicine, a cinchona bark extract called quinine was the only weapon against the deadly mosquito-borne para- site that caused malaria. And so, by the nineteenth century, pharmacists were continually mixing up ways to mask the bitter taste of quinine in a drink. British colonizers began drinking gin mixed with quinine-rich tonic water in South Asia and Africa for prophylactic reasons.
During the French conquest of North Africa in the 1830s, the government offered incentives to anyone who could create a recipe that would help make quinine more palatable to the soldiers. Not long afterward, Dubonnet was born, created in 1846 by a Parisian chemist named Joseph Dubonnet. Its “infusion of sensual flavors” (according to the old bottle) “won world-wide acclaim after Madame Dubonnet began serving it to family and friends.” An image of Madame’s cat remains the brand’s logo. Dubonnet’s distinct port-like flavor is spiced with a secret recipe of cinnamon, coffee beans, citrus peel, and lots of herbs and spices, but the quinine is what creates its slightly bitter edge.
Dubonnet had already been the favored tipple of Queen Elizabeth’s mother. “I think that I will take two small bottles of Dubonnet and gin with me this morning, in case it is needed,” the Queen Mother once wrote to her butler in preparation for an outdoor lunch (this handwritten note was sold at auction for £16,000).
Dubonnet even had a sort of moment in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Pia Zadora starred as the “Dubonnet Girl” in television commercials. Those might be among the my favorite liquor ads of all time: Zadora plays sensually with ribbon and peers out between gauzy curtains while her Continental lover approaches by motorcycle—wearing a helmet, tuxedo, and white scarf—for their rendezvous. Excellent, really, if you’re a connoisseur of Eurotrash, as I am.
(I’m pretty sure anyone under the age of 47 has little awareness of Pia Zadora. But if you’re curious about what the 1980s were really like, you should watch “When The Rain Begins to Fall,” an infamous duet with Pia Zadora and Jermaine Jackson: “and when the rain begins to fall/you’ll ride my rainbow in the sky.”)
Of course, with all this swirling romance and Euro glamour, I must sadly inform you that Dubonnet is now made and bottled in Bardstown, Kentucky (by Heaven Hill). In fact, they’ve tinkered with the formula over the years—and like a number of spirits, there’s an American version that’s very different than the European version (which is what the Queen uses). A few years ago, Heaven Hill nudged the American formula a little closer to the European.
In any case, Dubonnet comes in either Rouge or Blanc, and let me be clear about one thing: the white is to be avoided at all costs. It has an unpleasant aftertaste and a god-awful, cat-pee smell (perhaps channeling Madame Dubonnet’s feline?).
Dubonnet Rouge, on the other hand makes an excellent companion with gin and also Cognac (see below). It doesn’t have a million applications, but the few it does stand out and make it worthwhile. The Dubonnet Cocktail is a simple and wonderful early-twentieth-century classic. It’s also a flexible recipe. Experiment as you would with a martini. I used to add a dash of orange bitters to the old formula, but last night I got a bottle of the updated formula and I felt like it didn’t need the bitters anymore. I did give it a generous squeeze of lemon, like the Queen. I like mine straight up, but you can also do it on the rocks with “lots of ice,” which how the Queen liked it.
It’s the perfect drink to honor (or forget about) a passing monarch. Or to drink with Pia Zadora. Or if you happen to be sent off to the French Foreign Legion. Or if you’re relaxing at home and want to be super-certain that you remain malaria free.
2 ounces London dry gin
1 ounce Dubonnet
1 dash orange bitters (optional)
Combine liquid ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir vigorously, then strain into a cocktail glass. Squeeze lemon wedge and add to the drink.
While the Dubonnet cocktail is excellent, perhaps my favorite use of Dubonnet (as well as Cognac and absinthe) is a cocktail called the Phoebe Snow, named after one of the most famous advertising mascots of the early twentieth century. Phoebe Snow was a fictional woman in flowing white who extolled the virtues of the “clean” anthracite rail travel on the Lackawanna Railroad: “Says Phoebe Snow/about to go/upon a trip to Buffalo/‘My gown stays white/ from morn til night/upon the Road of Anthracite.’”
Why someone named this particular drink—which is brownish red—after Phoebe Snow is anyone’s guess. With its French-ish ingredients, perhaps it’s what one bartender imagined a sophisticated lady, dressed in white, would sip in a fancy dining car on the Lackawanna Railroad. In any case, do yourself a favor and give it a try
2 ounces Cognac
2 ounces Dubonnet
Barspoon absinthe (other anise liqueurs work too)
1 dash Angostura bitters
Combine liquid ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir vigorously, then strain into a cocktail glass.