Typically lumped in with its close relative, vermouth, Dubonnet is one of the few remaining vestiges of a once dynamic style of aperitif wine known as quinquinas. With origins dating to the 1830s, quinquinas were developed as a palatable way to deliver a medical dose of quinine to malaria-plagued French colonials in North Africa (much the way that gin’s favorite quinine-tinted consort, tonic water, was developed to aid British colonials in their own tropical outposts). Flavored with an array of botanicals including cinnamon, citrus peel, coffee beans and, of course, the bitter quinine, Dubonnet once enjoyed great success throughout France, and was reportedly a favorite tipple of the Queen Mother (who, Wilson writes, packed Dubonnet and gin for an outdoor occasion), along with Queen Elizabeth II.
Thanks—if that’s the right word—to changing tastes, today’s Dubonnet has a greatly subdued bitterness in comparison with the old style, which had a more pronounced quinine bite. That’s too bad; classic cocktails that call for Dubonnet, such as the Ante or the Dubonnet Cocktail, are perfectly serviceable and even desirable; one can only imagine what they’d be with the extra spark of the vintage Dubonnet.
Despite its semi-obscurity, Dubonnet still has pockets of devoted fans. Are you one of them? How do you prefer to sip this venerable French aperitif?
About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.