Ma'am's ruin


A top-secret source told me the other day that when the Queen Mother wants to tickle her throat with a nip of something strong, she is very partial to a gin and Dubonnet, whatever that may be exactly. Her taste for gin is, of course, well-documented (Gordon's is a loyal warrant holder). "I couldn't get through all my engagements without a little something," she has confided.

Intrigued by the gin and Dubonnet idea (it sounds like a wonderful aperitif, if a little strong), I call Clarence House to find out more about the Queen Mother's favourite drink. I confess I have never tried gin and Dubonnet. "Oh," cries Lucy Murphy, the Queen Mother's spokeswoman for a good many of her 99 years, "then you've missed something very nice."

I have a charming little volume entitled Cocktails: how to mix them by "Robert of the American Bar, Casino Municipal, Nice, and late of the Embassy Club, London". It was published in 1922, when the QM was a pretty young thing new to London's social scene, and it explains that a Dubonnet cocktail, formerly called a Zaza cocktail, is made by stirring equal measures of gin and Dubonnet in ice, then straining them into a cocktail glass and topping with orange peel.

I put this to dear Captain Sir Alastair Aird, the private secretary to the Queen Mother, whom I have never met but should like to appoint as my guardian uncle. "I would have thought you'd better have one-third gin and two-thirds Dubonnet," he gasps, "otherwise it should be a terribly powerful cocktail."

Sir Alastair ought to have a word with Claridges, a favoured haunt of the Queen Mother. In their gorgeous new drinking lounge, they mix gin and Dubonnet in Martini-like proportions (two-thirds gin, one-third Dubonnet). Clearly they are more in tune with the QM's tastes. "She's getting on a bit now, isn't she?" says Richard the barman. "She hasn't been here for a while but whooosh," he swoops to gesture, "she's teeeny. I'm up here and she's waaay down there."

While Clarence House (in complete contrast to the QM herself, who makes no secret of such things) was keen to suppress the idea that the Queen Mother might drink at all, other than, perhaps, in exceptional circumstances, Richard was perfectly forthcoming. "I don't know about gin and Dubonnet, but she certainly likes her gin."

Anyway, Richard makes a very nice gin and Dubonnet. It comes in a Martini glass but, with the sticky Dubonnet, is much sweeter than a Martini. It's hard to describe it with any impartiality because I like gin so much I could wax lyrical over a glass of the spirit neat from the bottle. But because I note that the orange zest tastes good against the Dubonnet, Richard adds a slug of Mandarine Napoleon liqueur. It tastes even better. Richard, who likes a stiff Manhattan, is not sure and offers to make me something else instead, but I cling to the glass, intent on finishing it. Actually, Richard is my kind of barman. If he doesn't think something's good, he doesn't charge you for it. And he tries most of the cocktails he makes.

Lucy Murphy insists that the Queen Mother would never go to Claridges just to drink. I suggest she gets over there right away - £4 million overdraft or not. The bar is supremely relaxing, the gin and Dubonnet is finely mixed, and the only difficulty she will encounter is hoisting her tiny frame down off the precariously high red leather stools at the end of a gin-soaked evening. But I am sure that Richard will offer assistance.

This article first appeared in the 19 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Prepare for a brave new world