Du – Dubon – Dubonnet
March 15, 2012
Weekend before last I got another obscure aperitif wine. At least, I thought it was rather obscure. Turns out, it still sells quite well (albeit with a demographic skewed towards the elderly and particularly women of a certain age), was incredibly popular in the 30s, and was advertised like crazy in France up until at least the 70s and 80s.
Dubonnet (pronounced Doo-bon-ay) is a bitter-sweet fortified aperitif wine. It’s somewhat similar to sweet sherry, port, or vermouth. In fact it is sometimes classified as a vermouth, and goes well as an interesting (but different) substitute for Italian vermouth in drinks like the Manhattan. It’s made by blending fortified wine with various herbs and spices including quinine, making it what the French call a ‘Quinquina’ (of which Lillet Blanc is another example).
While the Brits were drinking gin and tonic to get their quinine, the French army also gave incentives to anyone who could come up with new ways to make the bitter medicine palatable to their troops serving in malaria-prone areas. One winning formula was that invented by pharmacist Joseph Dubonnet in 1846. It was to become the official drink of the French Foreign Legion. No old lady’s drink in those days.
Apparently it became popular when Madame Dubonnet began serving it to society friends. A picture of her beloved cat still appears on the bottle today. Maybe this is her.
In the 1930s, at the height of Dubonnet’s popularity there were massive advertising campaigns. Apparently the word ‘Dubonnet’ can still be seen on old buildings across France and French Colonial Africa. There were also some great Art Deco posters, some featuring the slogan “Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet” which probably means something in French.
Then in the late 1970s, after the brand’s purchase by Ricard, there was a new wave of advertising, this time featuring American actress Pia Zadora, and a new slogan “Do you Dubonnet?” These advertisements are the pinnacle of wonderful Eurotrash cheese. By this time, following a sometimes violent feud between the Dubonnet sons, the company had split into French and American branches. Pia Zadora’s husband, 31 years older than her, was a major shareholder in the American branch.
Forward to the oo’s and Dubonnet is now firmly established as the drink of old ladies. One old lady in particular. Queen Elizabeth II, got the habit from her mother who took it one part to one with gin on the rocks. QE2 likes hers two parts to one of gin with a slice of lemon. This was firmly established in a 2007 documentary where the royal steward of the cellars spells out exactly how to make the monarch’s favourite tipple. Apparently a large spike in Dubonnet sales quickly followed.
Disaster almost struck two years later when the Queen visited the MCC to see the men in white wield the willow. Someone had forgotten to bring the Dubonnet! A butler was dispatched to buy a bottle but was temporarily barred from re-entry due to Lords’ strict no spirits policy. Luckily things were smoothed over and the Queen was not forced to endure the horror of watching cricket whilst entirely sober.
On to the cocktails:
The Dubonnet Cocktail
This is just Gin and Dubonnet. There are varying ratios and serving techniques though. I’ve nicknamed these according to the rule that each has to contain the letter ‘z’.
1 1/2 oz gin
1 1/2 oz Dubonnet
lemon and/or orange twist
Shake and strain this into a cocktail glass, and I dub it the Pia Zadora.
But I tried mine the way the Queen Mother took it. 50/50 shaken and strained on the rocks. So this is getting called a Queen Mumz. (Sorry, I had to get a ‘z’ in there).
The Queen Mumz wasn’t the best. The gin was fighting the Dubonnet a bit too much. I used Tanqueray. It might work better with a less Junipery gin like Plymouth. Otherwise try one of the next variations.
1 3/4 oz gin
3/4 oz Dubonnet
4 drops orange bitters
Stir and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon and/or orange twist.
This one gets the name The Zaza – an alternative moniker for the Dubonnet cocktail after a Broadway play that was popular at the time of its invention.
This was a much better drink. I guess it’s a martini variation, really, with Dubonnet instead of (regular) vermouth. I think allowing the gin supremacy led to a better drink than their clashing in the Queen Mumz. The bitters worked very well too, even with the already bitter Dubonnet. I’ll definitely be trying this again.
Finally, you can go the other way, and let the Dubonnet win out. This is the way Queen Elizabeth takes hers. So:
The Lizzie Windsor
1 oz gin (Gordon’s if possible)
2 oz Dubonnet
Lightly stir in a small glass goblet or wine glass. Add two large ice cubes and one seedless lemon slice.
I tracked down the 2007 documentary on the Royals which shows the steward of the cellars making this for the Queen, and these are his specifications. I managed to make out that Gordon’s was the brand of gin used. It is made by ‘royal appointment’ or something, so that stands to reason (although I had heard that the Royals preferred Booth’s – maybe that was in the past).
This is also a very good drink. The Dubonnet stands out and the gin (I used Tanqueray again) gives it a good kick. Very good in fact.
Gin isn’t the only thing that Dubonnet goes with. If you think of it as a sweet (but bitter) Vermouth, Bourbon or Rye are obvious choices.
1 1/2 oz rye or bourbon
1 1/2 oz Dubonnet
Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry.
This really was very good. I used Rittenhouse Rye and didn’t add a cherry. It was basically just a delicious Manhattan (which is one of my favourite drinks at the moment, even though I don’t have any Vermouth at home yet).
The Dubonnet Manhattan leads to another, souped-up version – the Dandy.
1 1/2 oz rye whiskey
1 1/2 oz Dubonnet
3 dashes orange bitters
1 dash Angostura Bitters
3 dashes Cointreau
1 piece of lemon peel
1 piece of orange peel
Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon and orange peel.
This was the best of the lot. A delicious citrusy Manhattan-like cocktail. Dubonnet also goes very well with orange, so I think the orange bitters and Cointreau really worked well in this.
Dubonnet is rich round and fruity, so aside from cocktails, or sipping straight, you can make some refreshing highballs.
The Appetizer Cocktail is equal parts Dubonnet and fresh orange juice strained into a cocktail glass, but I misremembered this and made it in a tall glass packed with crushed ice. It was really good and refreshing with the fruity flavours of the Dubonnet mixing very well with the juice.
2 oz Dubonnet
1/4 oz lemon juice
Stir Dubonnet and lemon juice in a tall glass with crushed ice. Fill to the brim with more crushed ice and add soda. Garnish with lemon wheel.
This is the perfect vehicle for showing off the Dubonnet as it is and makes for a wonderful refresher.
Conclusions: Dubonnet’s a great drink. I liked the Zaza best (Dubonnet Martini) and the Dandy, with the Highball being the most refreshing.