If you Google “Dubonnet,” the first thing you’ll discover is that it’s Queen Elizabeth and the late Queen Mother’s drink of choice. That’s pretty good street cred for an aperitif that’s been kicking around since 1846. But its appeal extends far beyond the walls of Buckingham Palace. Since its creation in France by wine merchant and chemist Sir Joseph Dubonnet, the aromatized wine has made its way around the world and back again, showing up in bars during the Parisian Belle Époque, and reemerging yet again today, in cocktail bars from London to New York.
Sir Dubonnet conceived the drink as a way to get the French Foreign Legionnaires, serving on the front lines in North Africa, to drink quinine—an all-important natural malaria preventive too bitter to sip straight. To say it was successful would be an understatement—the formula became so popular with with soldiers (and Madame Dubonnet) that the medicine caught on as a drink in it’s own right. As the red wine–based brand found its way across the pond, it also found its way straight into America’s burgeoning cocktail culture. In fact, some of the most notable cocktail books of the early 20th century—from The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930) to Charles Baker’s The South American Gentleman’s Companion (1951)—call for it by name.
With its rich body and rounded, herbal, bitter flavor, Dubonnet was, and still is, a natural substitute for vermouth, appearing in drinks like the Deshler, a sort of improved Manhattan recipe. “The first cocktail I ever had with Dubonnet was the Peggy,” says Ezra Star of Drink, in Boston, reflecting on the Martini riff from The Savoy Cocktail Book. Her drink, the Finding Peggy, was designed to bring out the robustness of Dubonnet, promoting it from a supporting player to the starring role.
At some point, Dubonnet’s European recipe diverged from the product distributed in the U.S., where it hadn’t quite caught on, and—along with the whole category of European liqueurs, aromatized wines and cocktail culture in general—Dubonnet fell into obscurity for decades. That is, until its parent company, Heaven Hill, decided to bring the aperitif back to Dubonnet’s original roots. Today, the recipe has been thoughtfully reformulated to hew more closely in flavor profile to the original European recipe than ever, and the aperitif is finding a resurgence with bartenders dedicated to study of the classics.
“The new formula seems like it has much more concentrated ripe red fruit than I remember the old one having,” says Dan Greenbaum, of Diamond Reef in Brooklyn. Greenbaum uses Dubonnet in his take on the sherry-infused Alfonso XIII, from The Artistry of Mixing Drinks (1936). “With the fino, there’s that mineral-herbal thing that works well together.”
The new Dubonnet recipe still hinges on a red wine base, but this time, it’s a mix of rubyred, rubicabernet and muscat of Alexandria grapes, enhanced with a proprietary blend of herbs and spices, including black currant and black tea. The bittering agent, though, is the original quinine, still sweetened with 100 percent sugar cane. Star considers the new iteration “a welcome update [that] has the weight and body of a cordial but with the impact of a fresh vermouth.”
To get a sense of how classic, aperitif-style Dubonnet cocktails are being reimagined for the modern drinker, we tapped five of America’s best bartenders to retool their favorite Dubonnet classic. From an old Manhattan-style drink from Hugo R. Ensslin’s 1917 Recipes for Mixed Drinks, remade with blood orange liqueur and mole bitters, to an old Martini variation from the 1935 Mr. Boston, flipped to fall squarely in the aperitif category, here are their drinks.