Written on the day of the birth of Prince George…
BY JOHN CORBETT. “I think that I will take two small bottles of Dubonnet and gin with me this morning, in case it is needed,” wrote the late Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, to one of her aides. This handwritten instruction, part of a cache of royal letters, photographs and artefacts belonging to the estate of her longtime butler, William Tallon (popularly known as ‘Backstairs Billy’), was auctioned by Sotheby’s after his death in 2007. Following a bidding war, the note fetched £16,000.
The Queen Mum wasn’t kidding about the D&G: there is documentary footage of her and the Queen at a picnic at Balmoral with two very large pre-lunch glasses of Gin and Dubonnet within easy reach. Other footage from a State Visit by the Queen to the Baltic Republics in 2006 reveals the drink’s royal formula:
“Seventy, thirty,” recites a member of the British Airways crew handpicked to serve HM a preprandial bevvy on the chartered 777 flight over. That’s 70% Dubonnet Rouge, 30% gin. The Queen apparently likes to have a slice of lemon placed at the bottom of a chilled crystal tumbler, with lots of ice on top. And then, fill ‘er up.
A Gin and Dubonnet (sometimes known in Europe as a Zaza) is a good old-fashioned serious drink, from an age of serious drinking, for someone who wants a good belt in the middle of the day, or whenever. And given the job the Queen has to do and the family she has often had to contend with, who can blame her?
HM reputedly enjoys a Dubonnet cocktail every day, but only one. Two – take our word for it – is more than enough for anyone, because the combination of the two liquors (Dubonnet is 19% alcohol, gin is 37.5%) packs a punch. And while we’re on the subject, the Queen also reportedly likes a single pre-dinner martini, and will then perhaps sip, but seldom finish, a single glass of wine during the evening.
The D&G is a beautiful-looking drink, a clear, jewel-like red of the kind that you often see in aristocratic surroundings. How does it taste? Luverly. It’s not a complex drink, although the gin adds some interesting botanical notes to the herbal flavours of the Dubonnet and takes the edge off its bitterness.
If you are looking for another reason to try it, here’s an historico-cultural one. Like its English cousin, the Gin & Tonic, Dubonnet was invented in the mid-nineteenth century to encourage soldiers in the French Foreign Legion to take quinine. Quinine still forms a small part of the recipe, along with fortified wine and a proprietary blend of herbs, spices and peels.
Dubonnet’s use as an aperitif – it was often poured straight over ice – quickly spread around the world, its profile boosted by memorable advertising posters created by some of the finest artists of the time, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Although herbal-flavoured beverages are currently out of fashion, the Dubonnet tradition, and the posters, continue. In many places in France you still see the famous slogan: ‘Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet’ and mixologists everywhere continue to be inspired by the drink’s versatility.
Tweak it how you like though, to our mind the Queen and Queen Mum’s favourite version is still the best way to enjoy this classic cocktail. And what better time for a revival than that of a new arrival?
Gin & Dubonnet
(HM the Queen’s version)
1.5 oz gin. (Alimentary likes to use Bombay Sapphire, one of the finest and most aromatic of gins).
3 to 4 oz Dubonnet Rouge.
Slice of lemon.
Ice cubes as desired.
Place a slice of lemon at the bottom of a chilled crystal tumbler.
Add ice as desired.
Measure a sufficient quantity of 30% gin and 70% Dubonnet Rouge in a mixing glass. Stir well and pour into the tumbler over the ice and lemon.