The Widow’s Kiss

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A sharp, strong cocktail with a lot of flavors going on at once, the Widow’s Kiss is a cocktail classic that features two herbal liqueurs, Calvados, and bitters.


Anyways, to kick this thing off, I decided to go with a rather strong, antiquated, and obscure cocktail (at least to most modern drinkers) known as a Widow’s Kiss. According to David Wondrich, in Imbibe!, the cocktail originates from George J Kappeler, who was the Head bartender of the Holland House hotel, in New York (218-220). The cocktail, which is comprised of three 80 proof liquors, Calvados, Bénédictine and Yellow Chartreuse, with a few healthy dashes of Angostura bitters, comes out to be slightly less than 40 percent alcohol by volume, thanks to the dilution from chilling the cocktail. But not only is the alcohol content high, the flavors of three ingredients are quite fervent as well.

The Widow’s Kiss was a cocktail that features really strong utilization of cordials.  Cordials, at the time, were something which were not very well utilized in the united states, with the exception of maraschino and curacao (Wondrich 219).  It wasn’t until the 1880s, when mixologists, tried to incorporate more complex herbal liqueurs in their drinks (Ibid).  To a lot of people, especially critiques in both the New York Herald and the New York Sun thought that cocktails were a “thing to shun” when cordials were added (Ibid).  The Herald observed that the drink, in 1897, after being pioneered by Kappeler, was “if taken in rapidly repeating doses, is said to be intoxicating” (Ibid).  It is thanks to experimental mixologists such as Kappeler that we have such classic and complex cocktails, which compared to the modern Appletinis and Lemon Drop Martinis, possess a much more interesting palate.

A note: while the drink is one that is comprised of all clear ingredients, and thus would be usually stirred (which I have done), Kappeler suggests that it ought to be shaken (Wondrich 220). Cocktails are usually shaken when it includes something opaque like cream, or a fruit juice, which will cause the drink to be cloudy regardless of how it is mixed; when the ingredients are all transparent, a cocktail is usually stirred in order to leave it with it’s pristine shine, making it sparkle as if it were a jewel.

Concerning the ingredients: the cocktail’s principle spirit is Calvados, which is an apple brandy originating from Calvados, France. Calvados is classified like other principle spirits such as Champagne through terroir, or a classification system in which the location of production is noted for the name. Champagne or Calvados is only called that when it originates from the location of origin of the same name. Many French wines are similar with respect to this, being known by region of production, rather than varietal of grape. The American version of Calvados would be Applejack, which is only produced now a days by Laird’s of New Jersey, and as such, Calvados is the most common replacement (Wondrich 57). Calvados has a sweet aroma of apples, and when tasting, possesses light apple flavor.

The second ingredient, Yellow Chartreuse, is an herbal liqueur that is absolutely amazing. It comes in two varieties, Green and Yellow, of which I honestly prefer the harsher and more pungent Green, at a whopping 110 proof. Yellow comes in, and is slightly more sweet, at 80 proof; the Yellow variety is colorized by use of saffron, where as the Green has the naturally resulting colors coming from the chlorophyll that originates from the wide variety of herbs that are used within the liqueur. According to Dale DeGroff in The Essential Cocktail, as he takes from Charles E. Baker Jr.’s work, The Gentleman’s Companion (1939), Chartreuse is “the product of monks-this time of the Carthusian Order, and formerly only at their establishment in the French Alps called Grande Chartreuse…” (110). The drink is a proprietary one that has been produced since 1605, and is truly, in both varieties, amazing. The Yellow one, while retaining the herbal flavors, has more of a sweet and earthy tone in my opinion.

Lastly, we have Bénédictine, which is another monastic liqueur from France. “It was first made in 1510 by the Benedictine Monk Dom Bernard Vincelli, who lived in a fortified castle under the protection of the Duke of Normandy in the City of Faecamp” (DeGroff 18). The monks had vanished during the aftermath of the French Revolution as a result of the anti-Catholic movement that stemmed from the “rationalized” period of “reason” that was a part of the contextual times surrounding the revolution known as the Age of Enlightenment. The liqueur, while not comprised of 130 different herbs and spices as Chartreuse, is only twenty-seven different varietals (Ibid 110; 18). The notes that come out of it for me are cinnamon and orange, though apparently thyme is quite prevalent as well.

There is one ingredient that has to be stressed, and should never be left out of a cocktail if it should call for them: bitters.  Bitters are a component found in many cocktails, that provide a bitter taste, but also various flavors.  These delicious little, but very pungent and potent liquids, come in a wide variety of styles: Orange, Angustora, Peyschauds, Celery, Peach, et cetera.  But even things such as Absinthe, with a bitter component thanks to the wormwood, or Campari, Aperol, Cynar and other liqueurs, can be considered bitters thanks to their overwhelming tastes.  These ingredients are even used as bitters from time to time.  Common ingredients which are found in bitters “include angostura bark, cascarilla, cassia, gentian, orange peel, and quinine[… .]  Bitters are prepared by infusion or distillation, using aromatic herbs, bark, roots, and/or fruit for their flavor and medicinal properties” (Wikipedia).  In the case of this cocktail, Angustora bitters are used, which is mostly flavored with gentian root.  Bitters add the final touch to a cocktail, providing a bit of balance, and complexity that is lacking without them.

Combined, the cocktail has a strong aroma of apple, and other aromatic herbs. Taste wise, the strongest flavors that come through are apple and orange, as well as anise and cardamom. On account of this, I paired the cocktail with some fresh apple slices (Pink Lady varietal), navel orange slices, aged English cheddar, and black pepper table water crackers. The drink would work quite possibly as a digestif, considering the strong herbal components. However, I feel it might work well as an aperitif given the proper meal to follow it. But as I have said, it is quite pungent flavor and alcohol wise, and as such, should not be taken lightly. It does have a nice gradated amber color, reminiscent of an Amber Dream, and is quite stunning visually, hence why a garnish is not particularly necessary in my opinion, and the cocktail itself has a strong enough aroma and flavor to warrant appreciation on its’ own.

Widow’s Kiss:

1 1/2 ounce Calvados
3/4 ounce Benedictine
3/4 ounce Yellow Chartreuse
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Combine ingredients in shaker tin, and either shake or stir until well chilled and diluted.

The cocktail needs no garnish in my opinion. Albeit, I have heard differing opinions as to garnishing it, including claims that it should be a maraschino cherry for modern variations, or a fresh strawberry for classic ones.  Do not use Green Chartreuse.  It will taste completely different.

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CocktailDB: The Internet Cocktail Database. “Widow’s Kiss.” CocktailDB.com. http://www.cocktaildb.com/recipe_detail?id=4019 (accessed February 8, 2010).

DeGroff, Dale. 2008. The Essential Cocktail: The Art of Mixing Perfect Drinks. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers.

Wikipedia contributors. “Bénédictine.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=B%C3%A9n%C3%A9dictine&oldid=342515524 (accessed February 13, 2010).
–. “Bitters. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bitters (accessed February 28, 2010). 
–. “Calvados.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Calvados&oldid=338863020 (accessed February 13, 2010).
–. “Chartreuse (liqueur).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Chartreuse_(liqueur)&oldid=342631366 (accessed February 13, 2010).

Wondrich, David. 2007. Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar. New York: Penguin Group.