The D List: Bringing Back the Alfonso

Bartender Dan Greenbaum makes a case for this two-ingredient classic named for a hot mess of a Spanish monarch.

He’s the dim-but-uppity scion of a moneyed dynasty, an ineffectual figurehead mocked by the public after a sustained run of idiocy. Already a joke by most standards, his laughable lack of self-awareness makes it so much worse. And sharing the same exact name as his equally reviled father doesn’t help, either.

We’re talking, of course, about King Alfonso XIII of Spain (who else?), perhaps the last European blue blood you’d want to name a cocktail after. Of course, in the grand tradition of mediocre men failing up, that’s exactly what happened.

Alfonso, who warmed the Spanish throne from his birth in 1886 to his piteous exile in 1931, had a reputation for military incompetence (he’s blamed for Spain’s disastrous post-World War I campaigns in Morocco), political impotence (he backed the military coup that eventually led to his ousting) and personal hypocrisy (the supposedly devout Catholic sired six illegitimate children). Not exactly an aspirational figure in the annals of Western history.

He, was, however, a well-documented patron of bars in the decade between his exile and his death, which he spent flitting between Paris, Rome and the French Riviera. This thirst is likely what led to the creation of a mostly forgotten drink honoring a largely forgettable monarch—though there are ample discrepancies when it comes to what actually goes into it.

According to a 2014 feature in the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, a bartender named Emile at Monte Carlo’s Hotel de Paris wet the beak of the king (“a decadent and pathetic figure”) on his very first night of exile in April 1931, with an original drink consisting of gin, the French aperitif Dubonnet and “a trickle” of Angostura bittersBut The Savoy Cocktail Book, which came out one year earlier, lists a recipe for a drink called the Alfonso: Dubonnet plus bitters, with Champagne instead of gin.

Diamond Reef co-owner Dan Greenbaum’s interest in the Alfonso, meanwhile, was sparked by an entirely separate third take on the cocktail: equal parts Dubonnet and fino sherry, served up with a lemon twist. Greenbaum came across the recipe, which, unlike its predecessors, includes the regnal number “XIII” in its name, in 1936’s The Artistry of Mixing Drinks by Frank Meier, the Austrian-born bartender (and supposed anti-Nazi agent) best known for his time at the Hôtel Ritz Paris during the city’s occupation.

Though it lacks the romantic origin story and sexy ingredient list that help certain dusty cocktails stage comebacks, the Alfonso XIII spoke directly to Greenbaum’s sensibilities. “[I] was drawn to the simplicity of it. Less is more with cocktails, so when I see two-ingredient drinks, I’ll usually try them out,” says Greenbaum, who discovered it six years ago while writing a menu for The Beagle, his former East Village bar. “It was one of those situations where we tasted it and printed it. That’s rare.” 

While it became an immediate hit among the staff, bar patrons were more reticent. “A lot of guests probably read it as boring since it only has two ingredients, both of which might’ve been seen as a little obscure,” he speculates. Despite its minimalist build, there’s more complexity in the glass than one might think. The unsubtle sweetness of Dubonnet, tempered by the savory addition of a dry fino sherry, lands it in the type of agreeable middle ground the actual Alfonso XIII would have done well to occupy during his time on top.

As for how Meier’s spirit-free, bubbles-lacking variation of the drink came about, it’s tough to say. But Greenbaum figures the king and the barman had to have crossed paths at some point, since he worked at the Ritz for the entirety of Alfonso’s exile. Maybe Meier wanted to impress XIII with a new interpretation of his namesake drink, featuring a product from his home country. Or maybe “the playboy king” was half in the bag, and Meier needed to slow him down with something a little more sessionable.

Regardless, Greenbaum is sticking with Meier’s way of mixing it. “It’s delicious and not too boozy,” he says. “It’s got a lot of flavor without the punch.”

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