The Platinum Jubilee celebrations look like boom time for the drinks industry, with various whisky, gin and port brands all releasing special commemorative bottles. But there’s one curious omission: Dubonnet, a liqueur that is said to be the Queen’s favourite. According to a spokesman from parent company Pernod Ricard, there’s nothing planned to celebrate 70 years on the throne of its most famous fan.
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting a flurry of activity. I picture the Dubonnet promotional department as two old Frenchmen asleep by a telex machine in the back of a dusty café in Béziers. But then again, who needs le marketing when you’ve got the Queen? Say the word ‘Dubonnet’ and immediately you think of the royal family, just as the words ‘Harveys Bristol Cream’ will conjure up images of vicars. According to the former royal chef Darren McGrady, every morning, until very recently, the Queen had a gin and Dubonnet at around 11 and then would move on to other drinks. (I also have it on good authority that she actually prefers a martini, made very dry with Gordon’s gin.)
It’s her mother who was the real Dubonnet lover, so much so that there’s a cocktail called a Queen Mother, made with equal parts gin and Dubonnet. A writer based in Bordeaux told me that the Rothschild family had a bottle on hand when the Queen Mother visited Château Mouton Rothschild in the 1970s, though, ever the diplomat, she didn’t turn her nose up at the wines.
The classic regal recipe is two parts Dubonnet to one part gin, which is much too sweet for me. I think it works best if you reverse the ratio. Dubonnet is full of sugar as it’s made from grape juice fortified with alcohol and flavoured with quinine, cacao, orange peel and other spices. It was invented by a French chemist, Joseph Dubonnet, and was originally designed as a way of delivering quinine in a palatable form to the Foreign Legion to alleviate the effects of malaria, rather like tonic water in the British Empire. To this day, it is still made with grapes from the south of France, although the alcohol content was reduced from 19 per cent to 14.8 per cent in the 1990s. That’s in Europe anyway. In the US there’s a different Dubonnet made by the bourbon company Heaven Hill, using Californian wine, which we won’t go into.
Dubonnet is part of a family of drinks known as aromatised wines which had their heyday in the 19th and early 20th century. Before the rise of quality affordable table wines, if you didn’t reach for the sherry or spirits, then you’d have something like Byrrh, Lillet or Dubonnet, or in Italy a Campari or Cocchi Americano. Many of these drinks are enjoying a resurgence as a new generation discovers their bitter charms, but Dubonnet remains resolutely unfashionable.
Now it looks like even the Queen isn’t drinking the stuff, as her doctor has forbidden her to touch alcohol, which doesn’t seem terribly fair when she has to grin and bear it with Boris Johnson or Meghan Markle. Perhaps the lack of mid-morning sharpener explains her absence at the opening of parliament.
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