Dubonnet: The Other Vermouth
How does one get a bunch of hard-bitten, French Foreign Legionaires to take their medicine? Put it in a bottle of wine, of course!
In the nineteenth century, quinine was the prescribed preventative for malaria. Quinine is very bitter; so much so that nobody wanted to take it. Enter Joseph Dubonnet, who added the nasty-tasting stuff to his fortified wine, thus winning the accolades (and the contract) of the French government for finding a way to help prevent malaria among her soldiers serving in North Africa.
Technically, Dubonnet is not a vermouth, but it is used very much like one and there are a number of old recipes that call for it specifically. Like a vermouth, Dubonnet is a fortified (by the addition of alcohol), aromatized (by the additional of herbs, spices, etc.) wine. Unlike vermouth, its primary botanical is not wormwood. Hence, not a vermouth.
One of the most popular cocktails utilizing Dubonnet is the Zaza. There are a lot of variations of this very simple cocktail.
1 ½ oz Dubonnet Rouge
¾ oz Gin
1 dash Orange Bitters
Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass
This version features the Dubonnet and is a small, lower alcohol drink. Switch the proportions and you have a gin-forward cocktail reminiscent of the original martini. Sometimes the Zaza is listed with sherry instead of gin.
Mary Garden Cocktail (Jack’s Manual, 1933)
75% Dubonnet Rouge
25% Dry Vermouth
1 dash Curaçao
Stir with ice until cold and strain into chilled cocktail glass.
Leave out the curacao and you have what is sometimes referred to as a French Manhattan despite the fact that is not even close to the [American] Manhattan.
There are beaucoup de recipes found under the appellation Dubonnet Cocktail. Here is a French version from the 1938 Cocktails by Jean Lapoiu.
1 jet de Bitter Campari (goodly dash or two of Campari)
1 verre de Dubonnet (3-4 oz Dubonnet)
Mélanger et servir avec un zest de citron (Stir and serve with lemon peel)
I am going to make the assumption that this drink is stirred with ice and strained. My French is a bit rusty, but the introduction in the book states that all the cocktails should be drunk iced (Tous les cocktails doivent etre bus glacés). Also, a passoire à cocktails (strainer) is on the list of necessary implements, so there you have it.
However you use your Dubonnet, I think you will find it an interesting aperitif or substitute for your regular sweet vermouth.
As far as I know, the only Dubonnet available in the United States is produced—you guessed it—in Kentucky!