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Dubonnet tipped as the next big apertif

Dubonnet tipped as the next big apertif

A drinks industry trend for reviving vintage spirits is predicted to propel brands such as Dubonnet Rouge, Lillet and Martini Rosso back onto cocktail lists worldwide.

Coupled with an increasing consumer thirst for lower alcohol offerings and spearheaded by the popularity of Aperol, the fortunes of apertifs are looking bright. 

Dubonnet was relaunched in the Australian market last year. The original formula for Dubonnet was created by Parisian pharmacist and wine merchant Joseph Dubonnet in 1846. The sweet fortified red wine, made with the quinine-rich Cinchona bark, was created to make quinine more palatable for soldiers battling malaria in North Africa, and went on to become the drink to serve at Parisienne soirées.

Since then, it's been most famous for being the Queen Mother and Queen Elizabeth's favourite tipple, mixed with gin.

Oddly enough, there are two version of Dubonnet, a European version and an American one. 

In Europe, the liqueur is made by Pernod Ricard. In America, it is made by Heaven Hill, a Kentucky company better known for its whiskeys, which bought the domestic rights to the brand in 1993.

Over the years, the American Dubonnet had toned down the cinchona in the recipe. So Heaven Hill turned to its national brand educator, Lynn House, to revitalise the apertif. 

“I had a passion for it, coming from my love for history,” she told the New York Times. “We had this spirit in our portfolio that had this great heritage. That really spoke to me.”

She spent months working with the company’s research staff, trying to bring the recipe closer to its European sister. Among her innovations were taking Merlot from the mix and replacing it with Alexandria muscat of Alexandria. She feels this gives the wine base nuttiness, acidity and lightness. The liqueur’s quinine element was enhanced, and black currant and black tea were added as botanicals, the tea lending “tannins and dimensionality”.

The bottle was also redesigned to be more retro cool, it features a label inspired by Dubonnet’s image in the 1940s and features Dubonnet’s wife's cat.

While Dubonnet can be served alone on ice, it can also be used as a substitute for vermouth in cocktails.

Sales of apertifs booming with Millenials

It's not just Dubonnet that's on the radar. Sales of aperitifs such as Lillet Blanc and Martini Rosso, are growing rapidly as Millenials opt for lower-alcohol drinks. 

Lillet was created In 1872 by brothers Paul and Raymond Lillet, in Podensac, south of Bordeaux, France. It's made from a blend of Muscatelle, Sémillon, and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, combined with fruit liqueurs that have a base of sweet oranges from Valencia in Spain, green oranges from Morocco and Tunisia, bitter oranges from Haiti and cinchona bark (quinine) from the rainforest in the Peruvian Andes.

The history of Martini Rosso dates back to the mid-19th century, when Clemente Michel, Carlo Re, Carlo Agnelli and Eligio Baudino built a vermouth bottling plant in Pessione, Italy. 

Global sales volumes of spirit-based aperitifs rose 7.4% last year according to new data from research firm IWSR.

Reuters notes that companies such as Campari, Diageo and Pernod Ricard are snapping up aperitif brands or launching new marketing drives for existing ones.

Campari has a head-start in the category with Aperol, the world’s best-selling aperitif brand. Aperol sales jumped 19.5% last year.

In the United States Aperol has had the strongest growth of any spirit over the past year, with Nielsen reporting sales are up 59%.

Campari Group CEO Bob Kunze-Concewitz told CNBC he's keen to acquire more apertif brands. 

"When you look at the top 10 drinks companies in the world they only represent about 15% of volumes, so there are still a lot of brands out there that are family owned," he noted.

Meanwhile, Pernod Ricard told Reuters it was marketing Lillet more aggressively outside its home market of France. The wine-based aperitif is growing at a double-digit percentage rate in Western Europe and North America.

Diageo dipped its toe into the aperitif market with its purchase of craft vermouth brand Belsazar in March.

Both Diageo and Pernod Ricard told Reuters they were looking at further investments in the lower-alcohol spirit bracket.