Spirits: Dubonnet, in Sickness and in Health

Appetizer Cocktail, a variation on the classic Dubonnet cocktail.
Appetizer Cocktail, a variation on the classic Dubonnet cocktail. (Julia Ewan - The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Obscure spirits become obscure for many obscure reasons. But there may be no bottle more enigmatic than Dubonnet. Its strange journey from popularity to obscurity begins with malaria, involves the French Foreign Legion, the Queen of England and Pia Zadora, and ends with it languishing on the dusty bottom shelves of your local liquor store, usually next to the vermouth.

Luckily for us, malaria hasn't been endemic around here for decades. Though if the city were still a malarial swamp, we might be better acquainted with Dubonnet and its category of wine-and-cinchona-bark-based aperitifs called quinquinas.

Long before the days of modern medicine, a cinchona bark extract called quinine was the only weapon against the deadly mosquito-borne parasite that caused malaria. And so, by the 19th century, pharmacists were continually mixing up ways to mask the bitter taste of quinine in a drink. British colonials began drinking gin mixed with quinine-rich tonic water in South Asia and Africa for prophylactic reasons. (Today's tonic water, by the way, contains a medically insignificant amount of quinine, so think twice about staving off malaria with Schweppes.)

During the French conquest of North Africa in the 1830s, "French authorities offered rewards to anyone who could create wine-based recipes that would help make quinine more palatable," writes cocktail expert and historian Paul Clarke in a recent issue of Imbibe magazine. Not long afterward, Dubonnet was born, created in 1846 by a Parisian chemist named Joseph Dubonnet. Its "infusion of sensual flavors" (according to the bottle) "won world-wide acclaim after Madame Dubonnet began serving it to family and friends"; an image of Madame's cat remains the brand's logo. Dubonnet's distinct portlike flavor is spiced with cinnamon, coffee beans, citrus peel and herbs (a secret formula, of course), but the quinine is what creates its slightly bitter edge.

Many of us know, and have fallen in love with, another quinquina developed during the same period: Lillet Blanc, the lovely and refreshing white-wine- and-citrus aperitif. Lillet began life as Kina Lillet, which had a much higher quinine content, then changed its recipe in 1986.

Much of Lillet's recent resurgence can be traced to the 2006 film "Casino Royale" (based on the original 1953 novel), in which James Bond orders his seminal Vesper cocktail with gin, vodka and Kina Lillet "shaken, not stirred." For a while you couldn't find a cocktail menu that didn't have some variation of a Vesper. The only problem is, without the original quinine level of Kina Lillet, the drink is nearly impossible to reproduce (though many bartenders await the U.S. arrival of an Italian aperitivo called Cocchi Americano, which might be as close to Kina Lillet as anyone is likely to find these days).

As Lillet tinkered with its recipe, Dubonnet remained the same. Surprisingly, it has won enough fans to keep it available while other spirits have come and gone.

Dubonnet reportedly is a preferred tipple of Queen Elizabeth II and was favored by the late Queen Mother. "I think that I will take two small bottles of Dubonnet and gin with me this morning, in case it is needed," the Queen Mother once wrote to her butler in preparation for an outdoor lunch. Last summer, that handwritten note was sold at auction for 16,000 pounds.

Dubonnet even had a sort of moment in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Pia Zadora starred as the "Dubonnet Girl" in television commercials. Those might be among the cheesiest liquor ads of all time: Zadora plays sensually with ribbon and peers out between gauzy curtains while her Continental lover approaches by motorcycle -- wearing a helmet, tuxedo and white scarf -- for their rendezvous. (See it on YouTube.)

I'm a sucker for Eurotrash like that, so I recently grabbed a few dusty bottles of Dubonnet Rouge and Dubonnet Blonde to experiment with. Let me be clear about one thing: The white is to be avoided at all costs. It has an unpleasant aftertaste and a godawful cat-pee smell -- perhaps channeling Madame Dubonnet's feline?

Dubonnet Rouge, on the other hand, makes an excellent mixer, particularly with gin. Like applejack or Campari, the spirit doesn't have a million applications, but the few it does have stand out and make it worthwhile. Case in point: The Dubonnet Cocktail (the Queen Mother's drink) is a mix of equal parts gin and Dubonnet that's simple and wonderful, an early 20th-century classic. Add a dash of orange bitters to the mix, and it might give the martini a run for its money.

Crosby Gaige, in his 1941 classic "Cocktail Guide and Ladies' Companion," placed the Dubonnet Cocktail as one of 16 major drinks in his "Hall of Fame" (rechristening it "Put On Your Old Dubonnet"). Gaige also suggests a variation I've included here, called the Appetizer Cocktail. Obviously, drink this before dinner.

Or with Pia Zadora. Or with the queen. Or if you happen to be sent off to the French Foreign Legion. Or if you're relaxing at home and want to be super-certain that you remain malaria-free.

Jason Wilson's Spirits column appears every other week. He can be reached at jason@tablematters.com or food@washpost.com.

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