Dubonnet: The French Aperitif Invented For Soldiers | History Hit

Dubonnet: The French Aperitif Invented For Soldiers

Prints in the Speed Art Museum
Image Credit: Sailko, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

If you were to hazard a guess as to Queen Elizabeth II’s favourite drink, you might guess something quintessentially British like Pimms, gin and tonic or whiskey. However, you’d be wrong. Invented in the 19th century, little-known French aperitif Dubonnet is the Queen’s tipple of choice – though it is noted that she often has it mixed with a shot of gin.

Though the drink isn’t hugely popular today, Dubonnet’s historic, medicinal origins are fascinating. So, how did a drink designed to cure malaria end up on the top of Queen Elizabeth II’s drinks list?

It was commissioned by the French government

Dubonnet is a ‘quinquinas’, named because these category of drinks contain quinine, a bitter active ingredient from cinchona bark. From the 15th to 20th centuries during the European colonial period, troops were often sent abroad to build empires in parts of the world that were prone to the disease malaria, a potentially lethal parasite infection transmitted by female mosquitoes.

Lithograph printed in colors on wove paper, 1896

Image Credit: Benjamin Gavaudo, Licence Ouverte, via Wikimedia Commons

Quinine was recognised as an invaluable medicine to prevent and cure the disease since it kills the malaria parasite. However, it tastes terrible, meaning it was often not taken by those who needed its protection most.

As a result, in the 1930s, the French government launched an appeal for a more palatable product containing quinine that might persuade the troops to consume it. Parisian chemist Joseph Dubonnet rose to the challenge by adding quinine to fortified wine. Originally called ‘quinquina Dubonnet’, the wine proved so popular amongst French soldiers abroad that they continued to drink it when back in France.

It was hugely popular in Paris

By the 1900s, Dubonnet was the ‘aperitif du jour’, served both cafés and bistros in France, and across the channel in Britain. Originally, the drink was consumed standalone to whet the appetite before dinner or as a digestif later on.

It enjoyed its heyday during Paris’s ‘belle époque’, with advertising posters drawn in a French art-nouveu style by artists such as Adolphe Mouron Cassandre and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec appearing everywhere.

Faded Dubonnet advertisement, Lautrec

Image Credit: ©MathieuMD / Wikimedia Commons

In the 70s, French beverage brand Pernot Ricard bought the Dubonnet brand. The drink had its last major advertising campaign around 30 years ago when it featured singer and actress Pia Zadora as the ‘Dubonnet girl’, singing and dancing to a song that featured the lyric ‘do you Dubonnet?’

It’s the Queen’s favourite drink

Dubonnet is Queen Elizabeth II’s favourite drink. Yeoman of the royal cellars Robert Large has stated that he mixes the Queen’s cocktail by adding a third London dry gin to two thirds Dubonnet, before topping it with a thin slice of lemon and two rocks of ice.

It packs a powerful punch, since Dubonnet contains 19% alcohol by volume, while gin is around the 40% mark. However, royalty photographer Arthur Edwards has noted that the Queen is good at making one drink last an entire evening.

In November 2021, Queen Elizabeth II awarded Dubonnet a royal warrant.

Official portrait of Queen Elizabeth II before the start of her 1959 tour of the U.S. and Canada

Image Credit: Library and Archives Canada, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The Queen Mother also loved it

Queen Elizabeth II likely inherited her love of the drink from her mother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who preferred her mix at around 30% gin and 70% Dubonnet, with a slice of lemon under the ice.

Indeed, the Queen Mother once sent a note to her page, William Tallon, asking him to be sure to include ‘two bottles of Dubonnet and gin… in case it [was] needed’ for a picnic. The same note was later sold at auction in 2008 for $25,000.

Today it is drunk neat and in cocktails

Today, though Dubonnet has a reputation for being more popular among the older generation, Dubonnet is drunk both neat and in cocktails. When served over ice, the spicy, fruity taste which characterises the drink is most pronounced. Equally, the taste is somewhat softened when mixed with tonic, soda, or, as the Queen likes, gin.

Equally, the increasing popularity of the craft cocktail movement has meant that Dubonnet is making something of a comeback in restaurants, bars and on our own dinner tables.

The celebrations marking the platinum jubilee of HM Queen Elizabeth II make the perfect opportunity to take the long view on some of the other women who have been queen in Britain - from the 12th century Empress Matilda right through to Queen Victoria.
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Lucy Davidson