Cocktails of the Day, featuring Dubonnet

I’ve been enjoying Dubonnet quite a bit lately, and have resolved to have more cocktails based on (or at least containing) this classic ingredient, which does seem to be a bit neglected even though its maker describes it as the best-selling aperitif in the United States. (That said, besides cocktail geeks I’d have a hard time thinking of anyone I know who drinks it, which is a shame).

If you’ve never had it, it’s an aperitif wine somewhat similar to vermouth. The history dates back to 1846, when it was first sold by M. Joseph Dubonnet, and it’s a blend of wines and herbs, fortified with spirits to bring the alcohol content up to 19%. Although like vermouth and Lillet it comes in both red and white varieties, when one speaks of Dubonnet it’s almost always about the red variety (as with Lillet, only in its case the white). It has a wonderful spicy-sweet flavor (the first time I tasted it I actually said, “Wow!”) and is great on its own as well as in a variety of cocktails.

Probably the most well-known cocktail using this ingredient is the one bearing its name, the Dubonnet Cocktail, which in its classic proportions is equal parts London dry gin and Dubonnet Rouge. Apparently this is Queen Elizabeth II’s favorite cocktail, although her favored proportions are 30% gin to 70% Dubonnet (her mother, the late “Queen Mum,” enjoyed these also, in a slightly different proportion of 2:1 Dubonnet to gin, and most days began quaffing them at noon, bless her). I’ve never tried it in this proportion, but I’m thinking I might like it in a reverse proportion, twice the gin as Dubonnet. Those Queens liked it on the rocks with a slice of lemon underneath; this one prefers it up and unadorned.

This next one is wonderful, with the spice of the wine the perfect seasoning for the lovely fruit of the brandy. It makes a perfectly civilized 2 to 2-1/2 ounce drink too.

Ante Cocktail

1-1/4 ounces Calvados.
1/2 ounce Dubonnet.
1/4 ounce Cointreau.
1 dash Angostura Bitters.

Combine with ice, stir for 30 seconds and strain into a wee cocktail glass or Champagne coupe. No garnish.

You can also easily get away with substituting Laird’s Bonded Straight Apple Brandy for the Calvados if none is handy, but I wouldn’t use applejack, which is a minority of apple brandy mixed with grain neutral spirits; you really want all the fruit you can get in this drink.

Dubonnet is widely available, and inexpensive to boot. However, for those who might live somewhere where there’s a dearth of Dubonnet, Charles H. Baker Jr., in his South American Gentleman’s Companion, offers the following eyebrow-raising recipe, which he attributes to some “Britishers” of his acquaintance whom he felt were overly thrifty:

The RIO MOCK-DUBONNET, which of Course Is Not Dubonnet at all But Is a Mighty Fine Aperitif, & Mighty Cheap as well.

[... They] will — if their time’s worth a shilling an hour — spend 10 pounds sterling worth of effort to save 1 pound sterling in hard cash. This Rio Mock-Dubonnet business is typical. We personally wouldn’t bother going to allt he trouble where likker’s as cheap as it is in Latin America; but up here in the States where the price of spirits is as fantastic as everything else in our weird and fantastic Washington Government, this receipt is well worth the space, and I don’t think that Monsieur Dubonnet will lose either sleep or pelf over our disclosure of it here.

Mix 1 bottle each of California or Chilean Sauterne wine, and California Claret or Burgundy. To this add 4 oz. of Italian sweet vermouth and 2 to 3 tsp. of Angostura Bitters. Stir-up, then rebottle. Chill well before using. Take straight as an appetizer; or mixed in any cocktails calling for the standard Dubonnet. We like it frapped with fine ice, like Crème de Menthe. Mixed 1-to-4 with best dry gin makes a good stirred Martini-type cocktail.

This odd recipe omits the fortification by brandy (or grain neutral spirits, as is undoubtedly done today), and seems to be a lot of trouble when nowadays, despite the continued “fantastic” price of spirits (and the continued presence of our weird and utterly un-fantastic “Washington Government”) you can run up to the grocery store and get a bottle of Dubonnet for eight bucks.

Try that Ante cocktail, you’ll really like it. Try using Dubonnet in a Manhattan instead of sweet vermouth, too. I’ll toss out a few more recipes soon.