Raising a Plymouth Gin and Dubonnet to Queen Elizabeth II

Richard Lee

We’ve been keeping quiet here about the Jubilee. We know it is divisive. Members may be monarchists or republicans, royalists or parliamentarians. Or curmudgeons. And we don’t want to be caught out celebrating the Jubilee but failing to give the same platform to the 1st of July, the 4th of July, the quatorze Juillet, the 26th of January, the 15th of August etc.

However, against all common sense, I do just want to raise one glass to an 86 year old of indomitable endurance.

So here’s a brief recipe for (and of course, history of) Queen Elizabeth II’s favourite tipple.

Dubonnet is a mild blend of fortified wine, herbs, spices and quinine. It was invented in 1846 by Parisian chemist Joseph Dubonnet, who was searching for a way of helping French Foreign Legionnaires drink quinine, used to combat malaria in North Africa. In that sense it is the French equivalent of Indian Tonic Water – beloved of ex-pat Brits – and a natural mixer for Gin. Of course the French version is alcoholic, making the mixed drink more alcoholic, more like Gin and Vermouth (Martini) than the classic G &T.

Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother is famously quoted as once saying: ‘I think that I will take two small bottles of Dubonnet and gin with me this morning, in case it is needed.’ And if you search online you will find several anecdotes about Queen Elizabeth II and the drink – most amusingly when the MCC stewards tried to bar the royal butler from bringing her a bottle to help her through a cricket match at Lords.

Gin, of course, is known everywhere, but my particular corner of England lays a special claim to it. We have oldest working gin distillery in the world – the Black Friars Distillery in Plymouth. The building itself, as its name suggests, dates from the early 1400s. After the dissolution of the monasteries it became a debtors’ prison. It then became a non-comformist meeting house, and the Pilgrim Fathers spent their last night in England there in 1620. It was from the distillery they made the short walk down to the harbour to set sail on the Mayflower on their epic voyage to start a new life in America, where they founded a new Plymouth. When it became a distillery it used water from Dartmoor, carried in the leat (aquaduct) that was one of Sir Francis Drake’s chief legacies to the town.

The gin itself is also redolent with history. The first ever recipe for Dry Martini names Plymouth Gin; apparently it is also the only gin still around today to be named in numerous recipes  from the renowned Savoy Cocktail Book.

My own favourite (of course!) is Navy Strength Gin – shipped around the world with the British Royal Navy for 200 years. When gunpowder goes bang it is the ‘proof’ that the alcohol strength is correct, and hence called 100% proof (58% by volume). (Alcohol diluted more than this will have too much water content to enable gunpowder to ignite). The American nickname ‘Limey’ for the British came because our navy routinely mixed lime with gin (or rum) to prevent scurvy.

So – to the recipe. I don’t know if this is the one preferred by the Queen, but it has been my duty with my wife to try several different versions for you – and this is my favourite.

1 part Plymouth Navy Strength Gin; 2 parts Dubonnet; grated lemon zest (to taste); slice of lemon. Traditionally in Britain we would not add ice. If you have to add a lump or two, I’d also add a little more gin – or you’re cheating yourself, aren’t you?


Posted by Richard Lee


  1. Geri
    June 6, 2012

    I think I’ll make these for our 4th of July party–as a “remember where we came from” cocktail. Thanks for the recipe!