In an earlier article, I wrote about the Full House Cocktail—complex, herbal, strong, and sweet. A little too sweet for me, so I looked at easy ways to cut that sweetness back.

After a certain amount of rejiggering, I ended up with a drier formula. The result nagged at me a little, because it seemed familiar. I finally got time to do a little research, and there it was: George J. Kappeler’s “The Widow’s Kiss.”

So once again, I had “invented” another cocktail… 120 years too late.

In fact, Kappeler’s cocktail is nearly two generations older than the Full House—he first published the formula in his 1895 Modern American Drinks, at a time when a large variety of spirits and liqueurs, both new and old, were becoming more readily available in the American market. Particularly in the cities, it was a time of experimentation for bartenders.

The Widow's Kiss Cocktail, photo © 2013 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Widow’s Kiss

The Widow’s Kiss is one of the conspicuous successes of the era’s inventiveness: three assertive, full-strength ingredients, including two strikingly herbal liqueurs, topped off with a healthy dose of bitters. It is Kappeler’s high-wire act: the fruity brandy; the sweet cordials, with no balancing sour elements in sight; the aggressively flavorful Chartreuse; and the earthy and aromatic Bénédictine and Angostura.

The Widow’s Kiss

  • 1½ oz Calvados (Boulard Grand Solage)
  • ¾ oz Yellow Chartreuse
  • ¾ oz Bénédictine
  • 2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Shake (or stir) all ingredients with ice until cold; strain into a well-chilled cocktail stem. Optionally express and garnish with lemon or cherry.

The formula is a well-matched set of ingredients, in the sense that the Bénédictine and the Yellow Chartreuse share important flavor components. Both are sweetened with honey, both are flavored and colored by saffron, and though the formulas are secret, careful tasters will perceive other herbs and spices common to both liqueurs—and to the bitters, for that matter. Add to that Bénédictine’s well-known affinity for brandy, and you have a group of ingredients that seem to be on very friendly terms.

Some apple brandies have a slight bitter or medicinal flavor component, which is not a useful attribute in The Widow’s Kiss. The Boulard Grand Solage is an example of a Calvados that avoids that bitter edge. It is a relatively young apple brandy, dominated by a lush apple fruitiness, but the classic oak aging flavors like vanilla and dried fruits do come through. It seems to be a very good match for the Chartreuse, toning it down a bit, and rounding off the harshness that can crop up in Chartreuse-laden cocktails.

The original 2:1:1 formula works very well; if you’re new to the peculiar assertiveness of Chartreuse, you can push the brandy portion up to 3:1:1 with excellent results.

Benedictine (detail), photo © 2013 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.Kappeler didn’t mention a garnish, but there seems to be a tradition of garnishing The Widow’s Kiss with a brandied cherry or two, Manhattan style. I’ve found that a small lemon twist seems appropriate, as well.

Overall, The Widow’s Kiss is a sweet formula—though not as sweet as the Full House; it makes an excellent and complex dessert or late night cocktail. As often happens, that sweetness can become cloying if the drink warms—I recommend that you make The Widow’s Kiss small, and drink it very cold.

One more thing—Widow’s Kiss trivia: according to historian David Wondrich, Kappeler specified that The Widow’s Kiss should be shaken instead of stirred, even though he wasn’t a “shake everything” bartender. We’ll never know what Kappeler might have been thinking, since this is a very attractive drink when stirred. I tried shaking one (for research); it pours cloudy and foamy, the way a shaken Manhattan would, and with no discernible benefit. Well, it’s your call; I guess I just like the look of a stirred cocktail.