Dubonnet Deserves to Be Front and Center

Don't let it go bad.

The first thing I do when starting a new bar job is to clean house. I start by tossing the white vermouth—the fortified wine may not die as fast a death as an open bottle of chardonnay, but die it will. Next, I inspect the refrigerator, where forgotten half-drunk bottles of dessert wine, years-old sherry, and other wine-based booze have been interred. Just about every bar has this shelf of shame. Always in the back, huddling if it could, rests a sad, crusty bottle of Dubonnet, the poor little match girl of the bar. I end its misery immediately, but always buy a replacement: With so many ways for Dubonnet to spice up a cocktail, it deserves to be front and center.

Dubonnet is what’s known as a “proprietary aperitif,” meaning one of those vermouths or bitters made from a secret old recipe containing myriad ingredients. More simply, Dubonnet is red vermouth, a wine fortified with alcohol and flavored with herbs, spices, and possibly added sugar. The flavor of Dubonnet mimics sangria, with a heavier mouthfeel and a spicier aroma. This is the sweet vermouth that makes a Manhattan so special, though it shows up nowhere else in the modern cocktail list.

Time was, Dubonnet enjoyed honor among the upper-crust bar culture of old London. At the turn of the past century, vermouths and ruby port were common ingredients in cocktail recipes. One of the aperitif’s finest incarnations lives on in the Opera cocktail, a stylish gin-based drink flavored with Dubonnet and a maraschino liqueur such as Maraska. To lend a speakeasy air to the drink, try an Opera in a clandestine setting like the bar at Chez Shea, where the cocktail has been a staple since the turn of this century. Another cocktail from the same era is the Americano. As with a Negroni, an Americano pairs equal parts Campari with sweet vermouth, but instead of stirring in gin, it’s made into a highball by adding soda.

For a time, the English drank Dubonnet with Schweppes Bitter Lemon, a fizzy nonalcoholic beverage that tastes like lemonade mixed with strong tonic. I have a great picture of 1960s London designer David Hicks, his mod bachelor pad stocked with said accessories. To make this classic cocktail yourself, try splashing a teaspoon of pure lemon juice over a couple of sugar cubes, then add Dubonnet and tonic in your favored proportion. The drink packs a sharp taste of puckering fruit and makes a superb before-dinner drink, priming taste buds flawlessly. I also like to keep Dubonnet around to make instant, single-serving sangria by adding some sparking water and orange slices.

I miss being behind a well-stocked bar every week, where I could play with Dubonnet and all of her friends, including Noilly Prat and sweet kissing cousins Punt e Mes and Lillet Rouge. Next time you sit at the bar, ask the tender to make you something with Dubonnet—but rethink your drink if he or she has to root around for the bottle.