This New Dubonnet Isn’t the Queen’s, but It’s Improved
Posted June 19, 2018 3:27 p.m. EDT
Chances are good that, at the recent wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Queen Elizabeth II enjoyed a glass or two of Dubonnet. The sweet, wine-based aperitif, mixed with gin, has long been a favorite drink of the monarch, as it was for her mother.
Chances are slimmer, however, that many Americans did as they watched the proceedings.
The Dubonnet sold in the United States is not the Dubonnet the queen drinks, and has not been for decades. In Europe, the liqueur is made by Pernod Ricard, the French liquor conglomerate. In America, it is made by Heaven Hill, a family-owned Kentucky company, better known for its whiskeys, that bought the domestic rights to the brand in 1993.
The formulas are not the same, and the general feeling among spirits aficionados has long been that Americans have gotten the worse end of the deal.
“The old formulation wasn’t particularly distinctive,” said Joaquín Simó, an owner of Pouring Ribbons, a bar in the East Village. “It was a bit cloying, and the flavors were muddy. There wasn’t a defining note in it that would lead a bartender to think, ‘What this cocktail is missing is some Dubonnet.'”
Heaven Hill, tired of losing taste tests, has decided to put an end to that. In early July, it will introduce a newly reformulated Dubonnet to the U.S. market.
Dubonnet’s fate began to shift three years ago in a pickup truck touring southern Jalisco, Mexico. In the truck were Lynn House, a bartender and the national brand educator for Heaven Hill, and Reid Hafer, a senior brand manager for the company.
“We were having a conversation about what we wanted to do with Heaven Hill, and what brands weren’t having the light shined on them,” House recalled. They both instantly thought of Dubonnet, a steady performer in Heaven Hill’s collection, but one that had never been invited to the craft cocktail party, owing to its lackluster reputation.
The product, House felt, needed saving. “I had a passion for it, coming from my love for history,” she said. “We had this spirit in our portfolio that had this great heritage. That really spoke to me.”
Heaven Hill gave House the go-ahead to tinker with Dubonnet’s formula, and she spent the next several months working with the company’s research staff, trying to nudge the recipe closer to its European sister. (Heaven Hill could not just ask Pernod for the recipe. As with many ancient liqueurs, the blend of ingredients is proprietary, so one Dubonnet would not share its secrets with the other Dubonnet.)
House, however, is willing to disclose a few details. Merlot has been yanked out of the liqueur’s Bordeaux-like mix of rubired, ruby cabernet and merlot grapes, and replaced by muscat of Alexandria. This, she feels, gives the wine base some nuttiness, acidity and lightness. High-fructose corn syrup was replaced with cane sugar. The liqueur’s quinine element was enhanced, and black currant and black tea were added as botanicals, the tea lending “tannins and dimensionality,” she said.
Those dimensions are readily apparent in the new Dubonnet. It has more bite and depth than its predecessor, with the tea and quinine coming through most noticeably.
House hopes the changes will encourage consumers to give Dubonnet another try. “I would show it to people, and they’d say their mother and grandmother drank it. I want to change that very much.”
Yield: 1 drink
1 1/2 ounce Dubonnet
1 1/2 ounce London dry gin, preferably Beefeater
Orange twist, for garnish
In a mixing glass half filled with ice, combine the Dubonnet and gin, and stir until well chilled, about 30 seconds. Strain into a coupe glass. Squeeze the orange twist over the surface of the drink and drop it into the glass.