“As the scene opens, you are up in your grandmother’s attic opening the dusty steamer trunk she brought from Europe in 1914. You reverently turn back layer upon layer of old lace and brocade … unveiling a packet of old love letters tied in silk ribbon. Ancient dried rose petals flutter down from between the envelopes.
“This is what the Widow’s Kiss is like. Sweet, complex and darkly golden, thought-provoking and introspective. It is a cocktail of fall turning toward winter and it wins [my] award as the most evocative drink ever. Have one by the fire.”
— Ted Haigh, Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails
There’s something about the Widow’s Kiss that compels people to write about it romantically. It’s not just that it’s delicious, though it is, or that it has one of the best cocktail names in history, though it does. On the surface, it all seems simple enough: The Widow’s Kiss is a stirred cocktail made of Apple Brandy, Yellow Chartreuse, Benedictine and a dash of bitters. But there’s something else about it, some transportive magic that is difficult to pin down but you can feel it in the way more or less everyone has written about the Widow’s Kiss, more or less since it was invented.
Take, for example, cocktail historian David Wondrich, who calls it “an astonishingly harmonious and yet intriguing drink,” or Imbibe Magazine executive editor Paul Clarke, getting wistful with things like “on a chilly November evening… there’s no small amount of satisfaction to be found in a drink that calls up a honeyed past, and provides a moment’s distraction from the bitter present.” Or consider the New York Herald, all the way back in the 1890s, in an article about the drink’s creator George J. Kappeler and his bar the Holland House—“[The Widow’s Kiss is] the most passionate poem which the liquor laureates of the Holland house hand out.” Annoying alliteration aside, I think you catch my point. People just can’t seem to help themselves.
Not that I blame them. The Widow’s Kiss is an exceptionally charming drink. It features, as mentioned, not one but two complex and beguiling French liqueurs, a double-barreled blast of herbaceousness. Bénédictine is composed of 27 herbs and spices and bottled at 80 proof, which all seems like a lot, except when compared to Yellow Chartreuse, which recruits some 130 herbs and spices, and is currently bottled at 86 proof. It makes no logical sense that these two would work together but in the Widow’s Kiss they practically complete each other’s sentences, locking into one another like a vacuum seal, full and rich and infinitely complex. Add the apple brandy at their base and some Angostura bitters to spice the apples and you have one of the most flavorful and delicious drinks ever made.
So if the Widow’s Kiss is so good, why haven’t you heard of it? Because it’s sweet. Kappeler’s original recipe was two parts apple brandy to one part each of the liqueurs, giving this cocktail a quotient of sweetness that even its formidable alcohol content can’t quite tame. Tastes have grown drier in the 127 years since it was invented, and the general public, by and large, doesn’t drink dessert cocktails anymore.
An obvious solution is to reduce the proportion of the liqueurs. This is the version you’ll find in the PDT Cocktail Book and many others, pushing this cocktail more into Old Fashioned-like territory, and it works pretty well. For me, though, the drier version loses something. My feeling is that the sweetness and intensity of the Widow’s Kiss is absolute perfection as dessert, the final drink on a winter’s night before the cold walk home. It’s strong and warming, with no ingredient under 80 proof. It’s pungent and herbal, with complexity that unfolds over time. The sweetness helps neutralize the strength, the intensity helps justify the sweetness, and the flavors help recommend it all. They lean on each other like a tripod and changing one brings the whole thing down.
That, to me, is the problem with the dry version. It’s fine, but it adapts the recipe to be an average anytime drink, as opposed to an exceptional after dinner drink. It loses the magic, the fifth essence, that ineffable harmony that made Wondrich write things like “we don’t know if Kappeler had any particular widow in mind. If he did, she must have been something.”
- 1.5 oz. apple brandy
- 0.75 oz. Benedictine
- 0.75 oz. Yellow Chartreuse
- 1-2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Stir ingredients on ice for 15 to 30 seconds (less time for smaller ice, more time for bigger). Strain off ice into a coupe and garnish with a cherry or lemon peel.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Apple Brandy: If you can, I strongly recommend Calvados, the apple brandy from Normandy, France. It has more weight and earthiness than its American cousins and really completes the cocktail. Boulard VSOP is my favorite readily available bottle for mixing, but really anything you can find will be great. Also excellent is Clear Creek’s apple brandy, from Oregon, which emulates the Calvados style. If all you can get is Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy, I’d still happily make this drink, just make sure to garnish with a lemon peel, which offers a pleasant misdirection to the brandy’s comparative lack of weight.
Chartreuse: The only note here is that there are two Chartreuse bottlings available in America, the Yellow and the Green, and it’s important that you use Yellow. Save your Green Chartreuse for Last Words.
Proportions: If you love the idea but really don’t want something sweet, the PDT version is tasty and perfectly acceptable: 2 oz. of apple brandy and only 0.25 oz. each of the liqueurs, still with two dashes of bitters. This will, as mentioned, make a delicious Old Fashioned variation.
Every week bartender Jason O’Bryan mixes his up his favorite drinks for you. Check out his past cocktail recipes.