One of the old-school cocktails that made a comeback in the last fifteen years is the Opera Cocktail.

The Opera is a blend of gin, Dubonnet, and liqueur—and that’s where the story gets interesting.

In fact, there are two versions of the Opera. (At least.)

The original Opera, as published by Jacques Straub in 1914, was a tiny drink, a half-jigger each of gin and Dubonnet, with two barspoons of crême de mandarine as a sweetener.

In 1930, Harry Craddock published an alternative version in The Savoy Cocktail Book. It was still a gin and Dubonnet drink, but Craddock substituted Maraschino for the crême de mandarine (four parts gin, one part each Maraschino and Dubonnet). The recipe suggests a Maraschino-heavy Martinez. I have no idea what he was thinking to make such a change—mandarine and Maraschino are not at all alike—though it suggests that Maraschino might have been going through a fashion moment at the time, at least at the Savoy.

Such is the sticking power of The Savoy Cocktail Book that Craddock’s Maraschino version became the model for nearly every modern incarnation of the Opera. Alas! that Straub’s orange version is all but forgotten.

My first encounter with the Opera—in its Maraschino incarnation—was in Hollinger and Schwartz’s The Art of the Bar, which follows Patrick Duffy’s Savoy-inspired recipe, but cuts back the Maraschino a bit, and adds a dash of orange bitters—a step in the right direction, and a hat-tip to Straub’s original.

But it just wasn’t a cocktail that made me want to come back and for more.

In fact, the reason I’ve not written about the Opera until now is because, given my low tolerance for Maraschino, I just plain didn’t like it. And I don’t write about drinks I don’t like.

It was only recently that I came across the orange version in Straub’s Drinks, and finally changed my mind about this old classic.

Straub’s version looks like this:

Opera Cocktail
Jacques Straub, Drinks, 1914

  • ½ jigger Dubonnet
  • ½ jigger dry gin
  • 2 barspoons crème de mandarine.

Twist orange peel on top. Shake, strain and serve.

Equal parts of gin and Dubonnet is very sweet and very herbal, and not really a match for modern tastes, though I suppose that if Dubonnet’s mix of herbs and quinine is something you pursue as a daily aperitif, then this original formula might be right up your alley.

The Opera Cocktail, photo © 2015 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Opera Cocktail

If your tastes are like mine, and Dubonnet is more of an occasional cocktail flavoring than a standard tipple, a simple adjustment to a more gin-heavy ratio works very well.

A modernized, upsized version of the Opera looks something like this:

Opera Cocktail

  • 2 oz London Dry gin (Tanqueray)
  • ½ oz Dubonnet
  • ½ oz orange curaçao (Ferrand)

Stir all ingredients with ice until cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail stem. Express and garnish with orange peel.

Dubonnet is like gin-and-tonic in the sense that it was the French effort to make quinine more palatable to the soldiers of empire. And just as gin and tonic seem the quintessential British tools for fighting malaria in their far-flung empire, the vermouth-based Dubonnet seems a natural French styling in their Foreign Legion’s struggle against malaria in North Africa.

London Dry gin is definitely the gin style for the Opera, and Tanqueray, with its very juniper-forward flavor profile, stands up well to the chaos of flavors at work in this drink.

I look forward to experimenting with mandarine in this recipe someday, but I haven’t found a good one in my region yet, so the more commonly found curaçao stands in. The Ferrand fairly dry, and works well for my tastes, but I would expect Cointreau or Grand Marnier to work well, too.

The Opera starts with an orange, slightly herbal nose. The first sip is about gin, then the herbs and bitter orange of the Dubonnet. The herbs are replaced by a passing wave of fruity sweetness from the curaçao, and then the finish is full of gin, and a return of the Dubonnet’s herbality and bitters.

You’ll want to drink the Opera dead cold; it gets sweeter and less subtle as it warms.

So there you have it: two sweeteners, two Operas, and a testament to the power of the Savoy Cocktail Book. There’s a world of difference between the mandarine (or curaçao) version and the Maraschino version, and I recommend that you try them both.

As for me, I’ll stick with the curaçao, and raise a toast to Jacques Straub!