Bottle #42: Dubonnet

If you’re familiar with Bottle #42: Dubonnet at all, it might be because of recently departed Queen Elizabeth II. She was apparently a big fan, drinking two parts Dubonnet to one part gin, over ice, with a lemon twist. She might have picked it up from her mother, The Queen Mum, who once wrote a note to her butler saying “I think that I will take two small bottles of Dubonnet and gin with me this morning, in case it is needed.”

With all this love from English royalty you might think this product was English. Mais non, it’s French. Well, sometimes it’s French. Other times it’s American. More on that later.

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Dubonnet definitely started in France. You see, European colonizers in the 1800s had a problem, and it was called malaria. People didn’t yet know what caused it – mosquitoes – but they did know how to treat it: quinine. Quinine worked, but it was very bitter, and different colonial countries dealt with this in different ways. The British in India famously took their quinine in flavored carbonated water, and tonic water was born. And combined with gin, of course! But France and Italy being France and Italy, they turned to mixing quinine with wine.

With deaths in North Africa mounting, in the 1830s the French Government launched a promotion to reward anyone who came up with a tasty quinine creation. The first to market was Joseph Dubonnet, who released his aromatized fortified wine in 1846, and launched the whole category of what are called quinquina in France. It was so popular among the French Legionaires that they kept drinking it when they returned to France. Other popular quinquinas included Byrrh and Bonal, and eventually Kina Lillet, of James Bond Vesper fame.

The original Dubonnet (and the French version today) had a base of mistelle, which was juice from red wine grapes, fortified with alcohol rather than allowed to ferment into wine, so all the sweetness came naturally from the grapes. That mix was then flavored with a variety of botanicals – quinine of course, but also cinnamon, green coffee, cacao beans and more –according to a secret recipe. The finished product was bottled at 18% ABV.

Dubonnet had been imported into the US since 1893 and featured in a variety of classic cocktails, including the Dubonnet Cocktail. This was a problem when France was occupied by the Nazis during World War II, and that’s when domestic US production of a product called Dubonnet began. I say a “product called” because of course, no one in the US knew the secret recipe, and the result was apparently a pretty sad copy.

The French started producing and exporting Dubonnet again after the war, but the US and French versions never reunited. In France, Pernod Ricard absorbed Dubonnet in 1976, and in the US, Heaven Hill took over the American version in 1993. Today, the two products are reportedly quite different. After the sale to Pernod Ricard the proof of the French version was reduced to 16% in the 1980s and now it’s only 14.8%. Meanwhile, the US version is at 19%.

Now, a red-wine based quinine-containing fortified wine should be exactly the kind of ingredient that modern American mixologists would be really excited about. But the flavor just wasn’t there, so it wasn’t a player in the early craft cocktail revival. In response, in 2018 Heaven Hill completely reformulated the recipe, switching up the grape varieties used, dropping corn syrup in flavor of cane sugar, bumping up the quinine, and adding new botanicals like black current and black tea.

My tiny bottle of Dubonnet is the French stuff. And bottled at 18% alcohol by volume, which combined with the producer listed on the label means it’s from before the Pernod Ricard takeover in 1976. But it has volume in mL, which likely means after 1972, which is when the EU went metric. I don’t have high hopes for it still tasting good after almost 50 years, but it was a really fun bottle to research and I learned a lot, so it’s still a win for me!

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Bottle #42: Dubonnet

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If you’re familiar with Bottle #42: Dubonnet at all, it might be because of recently departed Queen Elizabeth II. She was apparently a big fan, drinking two parts Dubonnet to one part gin, over ice, with a lemon twist. She might have picked it up from her mother, The Queen Mum, who once wrote a note to her butler saying “I think that I will take two small bottles of Dubonnet and gin with me this morning, in case it is needed.”

With all this love from English royalty you might think this product was English. Mais non, it’s French. Well, sometimes it’s French. Other times it’s American. More on that later.

Dubonnet definitely started in France. You see, European colonizers in the 1800s had a problem, and it was called malaria. People didn’t yet know what caused it – mosquitoes – but they did know how to treat it: quinine. Quinine worked, but it was very bitter, and different colonial countries dealt with this in different ways. The British in India famously took their quinine in flavored carbonated water, and tonic water was born. And combined with gin, of course! But France and Italy being France and Italy, they turned to mixing quinine with wine.

With deaths in North Africa mounting, in the 1830s the French Government launched a promotion to reward anyone who came up with a tasty quinine creation. The first to market was Joseph Dubonnet, who released his aromatized fortified wine in 1846, and launched the whole category of what are called quinquina in France. It was so popular among the French Legionaires that they kept drinking it when they returned to France. Other popular quinquinas included Byrrh and Bonal, and eventually Kina Lillet, of James Bond Vesper fame.

The original Dubonnet (and the French version today) had a base of mistelle, which was juice from red wine grapes, fortified with alcohol rather than allowed to ferment into wine, so all the sweetness came naturally from the grapes. That mix was then flavored with a variety of botanicals – quinine of course, but also cinnamon, green coffee, cacao beans and more –according to a secret recipe. The finished product was bottled at 18% ABV.

Dubonnet had been imported into the US since 1893 and featured in a variety of classic cocktails, including the Dubonnet Cocktail. This was a problem when France was occupied by the Nazis during World War II, and that’s when domestic US production of a product called Dubonnet began. I say a “product called” because of course, no one in the US knew the secret recipe, and the result was apparently a pretty sad copy.

The French started producing and exporting Dubonnet again after the war, but the US and French versions never reunited. In France, Pernod Ricard absorbed Dubonnet in 1976, and in the US, Heaven Hill took over the American version in 1993. Today, the two products are reportedly quite different. After the sale to Pernod Ricard the proof of the French version was reduced to 16% in the 1980s and now it’s only 14.8%. Meanwhile, the US version is at 19%.

Now, a red-wine based quinine-containing fortified wine should be exactly the kind of ingredient that modern American mixologists would be really excited about. But the flavor just wasn’t there, so it wasn’t a player in the early craft cocktail revival. In response, in 2018 Heaven Hill completely reformulated the recipe, switching up the grape varieties used, dropping corn syrup in flavor of cane sugar, bumping up the quinine, and adding new botanicals like black current and black tea.

My tiny bottle of Dubonnet is the French stuff. And bottled at 18% alcohol by volume, which combined with the producer listed on the label means it’s from before the Pernod Ricard takeover in 1976. But it has volume in mL, which likely means after 1972, which is when the EU went metric. I don’t have high hopes for it still tasting good after almost 50 years, but it was a really fun bottle to research and I learned a lot, so it’s still a win for me!

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