Toast the royal baby with a classic cocktail



Written on the day of the birth of Prince George…

BY JOHN CORBETT. “I think that I will take two small bottles of Dubonnet and gin with me this morning, in case it is needed,” wrote the late Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, to one of her aides. This handwritten instruction, part of a cache of royal letters, photographs and artefacts belonging to the estate of her longtime butler, William Tallon (popularly known as ‘Backstairs Billy’), was auctioned by Sotheby’s after his death in 2007. Following a bidding war, the note fetched £16,000.

The Queen Mum wasn’t kidding about the D&G: there is documentary footage of her and the Queen at a picnic at Balmoral with two very large pre-lunch glasses of Gin and Dubonnet within easy reach. Other footage from a State Visit by the Queen to the Baltic Republics in 2006 reveals the drink’s royal formula:

“Seventy, thirty,” recites a member of the British Airways crew handpicked to serve HM a preprandial bevvy on the chartered 777 flight over. That’s 70% Dubonnet Rouge, 30% gin. The Queen apparently likes to have a slice of lemon placed at the bottom of a chilled crystal tumbler, with lots of ice on top. And then, fill ‘er up.

A Gin and Dubonnet (sometimes known in Europe as a Zaza) is a good old-fashioned serious drink, from an age of serious drinking, for someone who wants a good belt in the middle of the day, or whenever. And given the job the Queen has to do and the family she has often had to contend with, who can blame her?

HM reputedly enjoys a Dubonnet cocktail every day, but only one. Two – take our word for it – is more than enough for anyone, because the combination of the two liquors (Dubonnet is 19% alcohol, gin is 37.5%) packs a punch. And while we’re on the subject, the Queen also reportedly likes a single pre-dinner martini, and will then perhaps sip, but seldom finish, a single glass of wine during the evening.

The D&G is a beautiful-looking drink, a clear, jewel-like red of the kind that you often see in aristocratic surroundings. How does it taste? Luverly. It’s not a complex drink, although the gin adds some interesting botanical notes to the herbal flavours of the Dubonnet and takes the edge off its bitterness.

A legion of reasons to like Dubonnet.

A legion of reasons to like Dubonnet.

If you are looking for another reason to try it, here’s an historico-cultural one. Like its English cousin, the Gin & Tonic, Dubonnet was invented in the mid-nineteenth century to encourage soldiers in the French Foreign Legion to take quinine. Quinine still forms a small part of the recipe, along with fortified wine and a proprietary blend of herbs, spices and peels.

Dubonnet’s use as an aperitif – it was often poured straight over ice – quickly spread around the world, its profile boosted by memorable advertising posters created by some of the finest artists of the time, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Although herbal-flavoured beverages are currently out of fashion, the Dubonnet tradition, and the posters, continue. In many places in France you still see the famous slogan: ‘Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet’ and mixologists everywhere continue to be inspired by the drink’s versatility.

Tweak it how you like though, to our mind the Queen and Queen Mum’s favourite version is still the best way to enjoy this classic cocktail. And what better time for a revival than that of a new arrival?

Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet

Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet

Gin & Dubonnet
(HM the Queen’s version)
Serves 1

1.5 oz gin. (Alimentary likes to use Bombay Sapphire, one of the finest and most aromatic of gins).
3 to 4 oz Dubonnet Rouge.
Slice of lemon.
Ice cubes as desired.

Place a slice of lemon at the bottom of a chilled crystal tumbler.
Add ice as desired.
Measure a sufficient quantity of 30% gin and 70% Dubonnet Rouge in a mixing glass. Stir well and pour into the tumbler over the ice and lemon.

Here’s cheers to beers


rsz_beer_stein_detals_007The annual Beervana event in Wellington celebrates the rise and rise of artisan brews – and one of the most exciting things about them is how well they go with food. 

[Editor’s note: This article first appeared in abridged form in Dish magazine.]

BY JOHN CORBETT. All around me people were swirling glasses, sniffing, tasting and comparing notes. There were over two dozen exhibitors’ stands as well as others selling barista coffee, thin-crust pizzas, platters of artisan cheese and gourmet meat pies. In one corner a band played laid-back blues.

The crowd was 95 per cent male, very well behaved and no-one was visibly affected by alcohol. The ambience, in fact, was like a typical wine-tasting event – except we weren’t tasting wine. It was Beervana, a two-day public celebration of craft (artisan) beer-making that is part of the annual BrewNZ convention and awards in Wellington. It was a revelation.

As I moved around the stands, the servers scrupulously rinsed my glass after each sampling so I could properly taste the next beer. And what beers! There was a dizzying variety: Pilseners, lagers, bitters, wheat beers, white beers, beers infused with manuka honey and horopito and chilli, porters, stouts, scrumpies and ciders, as well as some beers I’d never heard of such as dunkelweiss, heffe, kriek and gueuze. Almost without exception, the beers had the attributes – aroma, flavour and complexity on the palate – that you associate with wine.

One exhibitor frankly likened its American Pale Ale to Sauvignon Blanc: “It’s packed with racy, up-front fruit flavours and a bracing punch of acidity,” the brochure said, “…a perfect match with spicy Thai or Mexican cuisine.”

The wine analogies continued: a couple of times I overheard the term terroir used in relation to hops. (Hops and yeasts are engrossing topics for craft brewers: some flavour hops from New Zealand; others won’t touch any that aren’t from England, America or Europe). It became abundantly clear that craft beer types have very good taste buds – and that I would never look at beer in quite the same way again.

The rapid growth of craft beer-making in New Zealand over the last decade is recognised as one of the most significant developments the local brewing industry has seen. The term “craft”, as in handcrafted, comes from the USA and refers to beers that are brewed using traditional methods, with fewer ingredients than are found in many mass-produced beers and with a focus on distinctive flavours and tastes.

Craft beer enterprises are typically small – they’re often made in appropriately-named microbreweries, often by one or two individuals with a passionate commitment to good beer. At Beervana, that passion is always in evidence in brands with whimsical names (Doctor’s Orders, Rocky Knob, Parrotdog) and a few that border on the risqué. But everybody is serious and knowledgeable – and that’s just the public.

Although craft beers still make up only two per cent of the New Zealand beer market, their growing popularity is reflected in steadily increasing demand, burgeoning entries in the BrewNZ Awards and perennially healthy attendance figures for Beervana, which has now become an event of national interest. Export prospects also beckon, although industry leaders say that brewing and hop production will need to expand significantly to take advantage of the opportunity.

The rise and rise of craft beers has of course not gone unnoticed by the large mainstream beer companies, both of whom have offered craft brands for more than a decade. Lion Nathan and Dominion Breweries have also had a longtime presence at Beervana with their Mac’s and Monteith’s brands, and they and a number of other exhibitors also use the event to promote agency lines from Europe and elsewhere.

“Craft beer makers mean no disrespect to either the big beer makers or the big international beer brands,” a Beervana exhibitor told me. “But to stick to drinking them only would be like only drinking Chardonnay or Shiraz if you drank wine – there’s so much else! Beer is the same. Craft brewers are driven by flavour and taste and they start where mainstream beers leave off. They add huge variety and diversity to beer drinking.”

A natural consequence of treating beer like wine is to explore how it matches with food. To their considerable credit, both Lion Nathan and Dominion Breweries have taken a leading role in promoting this concept. In Lion Nathan’s Mac’s Brewbars throughout the country, beers are thoughtfully matched to the menus and the venues also offer seasonal and limited release beers. Dominion Breweries’ Monteith’s craft beer brand is a notable sponsor of food events, notably the Monteith’s Wild Food Challenge, which has inspired restaurants nationwide to create superb beer and food matches for the last 17 years.

Food has always been a significant presence at Beervana, and for this year’s event on 23-24 August Beervana Culinary Director, Martin Bosley, rounded up some of Wellington’s top eateries including Boulcott Street Bistro, Epicure, Grill Meats Beer and The Goose Shack to offer a variety of on-site offerings that complemented and contrasted with the 250-plus craft beers available.

The format of the food participation varies creatively from year to year; at a matching class a few years ago Bosley whipped up, in a brisk thirty minutes, sautéed Whangamata scallops in anchovy butter with duck fat-roasted potatoes and green beans, followed by two dessert and cheese dishes. The scallops were matched with Mac’s Great White.

“Wheat beers are good with shellfish,” Bosley said. “Their smoothness and softness accents the sweetness of the scallops and contrasts with both the anchovy butter and the crunchy green beans.”

Next, a classic north of England offering of light fruit cake and a slice of vintage Cheshire cheese was paired with Tuatara Brewery’s award-winning Ardennes Belgian-style ale.

A final combination of a dense chocolate cake with Valrhona chocolate ganache, raspberry and coconut and a slice of Roquefort cheese was perhaps the most interesting of all. Martin Bosley’s beer choice was a dark, rich Dux Sou’wester stout whose astringency mellowed the taste of the cake and rounded out the robust character of the Roquefort.

“The first thing to remember about matching beer with food.” Bosley said, “is that beer clears and resets your palate and then lets you pick up other flavour combinations. That’s one of the reasons why beer works so well with savoury dishes. That said, the broad guidelines for matching beer with food are the same as for wine.

“For fish and seafood, choose a lager or a lighter ale. Caramel malt beers complement roast meats. Chocolate cries out for a dark beer and beers with a good, hoppy kick help reduce the heat of spicy foods. It’s an adventure, so explore.”

The message is slowly getting out to hospitality professionals across the country. A few years back a Beervana exhibitor told me that he dreaded getting the fish eye from the sommelier when he went to a fine restaurant and asked for a good beer to accompany his meal. These days, as more and more restaurants offer beer as well as wine matches, it happens less and less.

One sommelier you will never get that from is Michael Dearth of The Grove. The owner of one of Auckland’s leading restaurants, he is an enthusiastic advocate of beer and food matching.

“Beer has a lineage that is at least as old as that of wine,” he says,” and I firmly believe that enjoying a good quality beer with a meal can be just as satisfying an experience as a good wine. I try to get people to open their minds to that idea.”

Photo: wikimedia commons

John Corbett flew to Wellington with Air New Zealand and recommends Koru Club as the best way to spend time in major NZ airports.


A Trip with Champagne, down Memory Lane



John Corbett embraces a remembrance of fizz past.

[Editor’s note: This article first appeared in GR magazine.]

“Do you remember,” I asked the eminent wine writers seated around the table, “when the French Champagne makers decided to ‘get’ the New Zealand market in the 1980s?”

The writers lifted their noses out of their tasting glasses.

“You could go,” I said, “to the Wineworths shop at the Downtown Bus Terminal and buy Lanson Black Label, Moët & Chandon, Mumm Cordon Rouge, Veuve Clicquot – you name it – for $19.95 a bottle.”

The wine writers looked nostalgic.

“Ah yes,” said one, smiling in a meditative way, “that certainly dates you, mentioning Wineworths.”

Back in the day, the now über-trendy Britomart Precinct in downtown Auckland was a hotchpotch of abandoned and decaying buildings. Smack in the middle of the urban blight, between what are now Cafe Hanoi and Ostro, Wineworths catered equally to toffs bound for the eastern suburbs and battlers heading west to Blockhouse Bay.

The writers looked reflective as they recalled how, once the French had got us well and truly hooked, the prices gradually and inexorably rose. They looked downright sombre when they reflected on how much a good bottle of Champagne costs these days.

We were basically quite happy though because we were ensconced in the elegant private dining room of a restaurant in the posh suburb of St Heliers, tasting our way through some of the finest vintages of the house of Lanson Champagne (founded in 1760).

           “It was a wonderful sensory experience to see how great Champagnes, like
beautiful, elegant and well-preserved women, age….”

We started with Lanson’s flagship non-vintage Lanson Black Label Brut, which exhibits some of the classic traits that set Lanson apart from a lot of Champagnes which, we were told by the local Lanson rep running the tasting, are now made sweeter and “softer” for contemporary tastes. For a start, Lanson does not induce malolactic fermentation (a secondary fermentation) in the making of its wines. This way, the company says, the freshness, fruitiness and aroma profile of individual cuvées are preserved and allowed to reach their full, aromatic potential. It also helps the wines keep better.

Drinking this wine was a classic Champagne experience: it tasted just the way it did when I first got “hooked” on it.

Lanson Noble Cuvee Blanc de Blancs - as served on the Concorde....

Lanson Noble Cuvee Blanc de Blancs – as served on the Concorde….

Things got even more interesting as we proceeded through a Rosé Brut non-vintage (great with meat courses and desserts made with fresh red fruit) and on to the first of several wonderful vintage Champagnes. These included Lanson Gold Label vintage 1996 – one of the all-time rated vintages; Lanson Noble Cuvée 1995 and Lanson Noble Cuvée Blanc de Blancs 1996. The last was often served on the late and much-missed Concorde.  It’s a great aperitif and goes brilliantly with shellfish and fish, but since we are talking stratospheric quality here, I found I preferred the Noble Cuvée 1995: it was a lovely pale yellow colour, had a nice citrusy aroma and tasted faintly of honey, with that crispness that only Champagne provides. I think it would be a great all-rounder, suiting duck and other dishes as well as fish and seafood.

In the keeping with the “Things Past” flavour of the occasion, we went quite a way back, tasting Gold Label and Lanson Brut vintages from 1994 (this got a big tick from me), 1993, 1990, 1988 and 1981. It was a wonderful sensory experience to see how great Champagnes, like beautiful, elegant and well-preserved women, age. The general taste movement is often described as toward notes of petrol/paraffin; it seems an indelicate description but the notes were there, albeit in a very well-mannered way.

After the tasting, waiting in the wind for a cab on an unseasonably cold late-summer day, I reflected on why I love Champagne. Most of the time these days it’s out of my financial reach and of course it will never, ever be $19.95 again.

“We can tell our grandchildren,” one of the writers had said earlier, “that once upon a time we drank Champagne in plenty.”

You could also tell them that Champagne reminds you of why people strive to make rare and beautiful things. And that there is nothing like it in the world.