A drink fit for a queen

Since my visit to France last fall, I’ve become interested in aperitifs, a category of liquor I’d never really dwelt on before. I was surprised to discover the French don’t really seem to do a lot of cocktails over there, preferring instead to drink their whiskey and gin straight (when they even bother with gin). They also do likewise with all the liqueurs we Americans normally blend into cocktails. Sipping straight Chartreuse and Fernet is treated as an act of torture in the U.S., but it’s dessert over there. Seeing that wildly different approach to imbibing liquor made me curious, and since then I’ve been interested in learning to enjoy all the things on my mixers shelf on their own merits.

So far there are some I like and some I’m happy to continue using as a mixer. One of my biggest takeaways so far has been that I really enjoy quinated drinks. I guess that makes sense—the central element of the tonic in a gin and tonic is quinine, so it stands to reason I’d enjoy other drinks that include quinine. I guess. For the moment, at least, I’ve kind of landed on Dubonnet Rouge my experiment of choice.

Interestingly, it turns out Dubonnet has recently been reformulated. At least here in the U.S., that is. I noticed the label on the bottle had changed sometime over the past few months and decided to read up on it. Dubonnet, I found, has a lengthy history and has been a standard in Europe for more than a century; the American version, however, has long been a completely different formulation than its European incarnation. Sometime in the past year, the American licensee decided to rework American Dubonnet to more closely resemble its original form and slapped a vintage-looking label on the bottle to reflect the difference.

It’s a pretty decent difference. The older U.S. formula was much sweeter, whereas the new version cuts down on the sugar to taste more like a proper vermouth—plus a hint of quinine. The flavor is pretty similar now to Byrrh, although a bit fuller and with a little less sharp tartness. It’s pretty easy sipping if you happen to enjoy a good Italian vermouth. Which, I have come to realize, I do. I have tried both formulations of Dubonnet now, and I’m far more inclined to sip the new version, whereas the old was a little too cloying.

Because it tastes so similar to vermouth while benefitting from the additional complexity of quinine, I figured Dubonnet would probably work well in gin-based cocktails and decided to go hunting for some recipes. Much to my surprise, I quickly discovered that Dubonnet’s greatest claim to fame is that it’s the daily go-to for none other than the Queen of England. Every day for lunch she has a glass of gin and Dubonnet. That seems like a pretty solid endorsement. If you can count on anyone for solid advice on what to do with gin, it’s going to be an old Englishwoman.

The queen’s beloved libation, it turns out, falls somewhere on the flavor spectrum between a gin & tonic and the original martini recipe (Old Tom gin and sweet vermouth). It goes down really easy. Too easy, I would argue. The flavor makes it a nice lunchtime accompaniment, but the bittersweet quality of the Dubonnet masks just how much alcoholic kick is in this thing. I’m pretty sure that if I made this my lunchtime beverage of choice (as opposed to water or coffee) I’d end up losing my job for being a drunkard.

It’s nice for weekends, though. Or for evening streams, like the one I’ll be hosting tonight.