How to mix a cocktail fit for a queen

“Do you Dubonnet?” is one of many popular slogans used in the French aperitif’s illustrated advertising campaigns over the past 175 years.

Born as a medicinal drink, Dubonnet lately has been difficult to find on store shelves, because it is known widely to have been a favorite of Queen Elizabeth II — so much so, that in November 2021 the queen gave Dubonnet the Royal Warrant of Appointment, a recognition of regularly supplied goods or services to the royal households.

The queen is said to have loved a Dubonnet cocktail, also the preferred drink of the late Queen Mother, who once sent a note regarding picnic preparations that mentioned the drink. “I think that I will take 2 small bottles of Dubonnet and gin with me this morning, in case it is needed,” the note to page William Tallon read. (The note was sold at an auction of Tallon’s mementos in 2008.)

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Invented in 1846 by Paris chemist Joseph Dubonnet, the fortified wine was created to persuade French Legion soldiers to drink quinine (which it includes) to combat malaria in North Africa. Quinine has a bitter taste, and Dubonnet added spices, herbs and cane sugar to make it more palatable. The drink had a heyday during the height of European colonialism in the 19th century.

There are two standard versions of Dubonnet these days — Dubonnet Red, bottled at 19% alcohol by volume and made at Heaven Hill Distillery in Kentucky, and Dubonnet Rouge aperitif, bottled at 14.8% ABV in France by original producer Pernod-Ricard.

Starting with a red wine base, it is fortified (by adding alcohol) and aromatized (by adding herbs and spices). A blending of grapes (ruby red, rubicabernet and muscat of Alexandria) is pressed and juiced. Grape juice is mixed with a neutral base spirit at 15% to prevent fermentation, aiding in retention of flavors, aromas and sugars in the wine. After an aging process, herbs, spices, black currant, black tea and cinchona bark are added.

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Dubonnet falls under the category of a quinquina (pronounced “ka-kina”), which is an aromatized wine that contains cinchona, which provides quinine. Others include Bonal, Byrrh, Chinato and Lillet. The aperitif is rich and balanced, with complexity. Much fruitier than a vermouth, it is almost like a marriage of Campari and sweet vermouth. It has all the bittering botanicals known to prompt a palate before a meal, which is how Queen Elizabeth is known to have sipped hers.

It is perfect sipped neat over ice, and pairs well with gin, Champagne and even whiskey. It makes a tasty spritzer with soda water.

According to drink historians, the Dubonnet cocktail first appeared in 1904, along with its French double, the zaza. It’s an easy drink to make — equal parts gin and Dubonnet, stirred with ice, strained and garnished with a lemon twist. The queen reportedly preferred a 2-to-1 Dubonnet-to-gin ratio over two rocks of ice, with half a lemon wheel sunk in the glass.

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