Friday, November 15, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Widow’s Kiss

The first time I heard the name Bénédictine, I assumed it was a tincture stashed in the nurse’s station at my Catholic school. “We’ll rub a little Bénédictine on that knee, then you can go to Sister Edna’s music class.”

I soon developed another impression of it. I’ll allow the brilliant novelist Ross Thomas to sum it up. In his 1989 novel The Fourth Durango, some bent city fathers – well, father and mother – are planning a dinner for the next lamsters who want to hole up in their burg. The mayor isn’t sure if she should offer dessert: “If they want sugar, I think I’ve got some B&B (Bénédictine & Brandy) left.” When the offer is made, nobody wants any.

Sweet. That’s the operative word for Bénédictine. But it’s an idiosyncratic sweetness, with a long finish redolent of honey and a feisty undercurrent of spiciness. Put it in a mixed drink and you’ll know it’s there, which is why it tends to be used in small amounts. But used it is, with regularity, and thus it was that I added its highly distinctive bottle to my home bar.

Pictured: my less successful variation
The French liqueur is just coming off its 500th anniversary, if you believe the press packet. Like chartreuse, it has in its history a monk zealously guarding a secret recipe. In 1510 Bernardo Vincelli, described in sacred texts – namely Bénédictine’s website – as “not apparently an expert in herbalism but more an alchemist,” crafted a medicinal elixir at an abbey in Fécamp. Of course, the recipe was lost during La Révolution only to be miraculously rediscovered in 1863 by wine broker Alexandre Le Grand, who proceeded to make a killing on it. Le Grand played up the religious angle; each bottle is marked D.O.M. for Deo Optimo Maximo, or “To God, Most Good, Most Great.”

To inaugurate my bottle I went with a classic. The Widow’s Kiss is one of the great fall cocktails as well as a postprandial staple. But to make it, I’d have to wrestle with a host of spiritual questions.

Calvados or apple brandy? Purists insist on France’s Calvados for this drink. This one was easy: I didn’t have any Calvados, but I did have Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy. (In this instance, however, I would not settle for applejack.)

Chartreuse? The Widow’s Kiss is a divine concoction in part because it uses both of your monk-made liqueurs. Some bartenders don’t object to using the more potent green chartreuse, but I would insist on yellow. Its flavor is less intrusive and pairs better with Bénédictine.

Shaken or stirred? Customarily this query would never be raised; a cocktail without citrus would always be stirred. But the father of the Widow’s Kiss, George Kappeler, a bartender at New York’s Holland House hotel, made a point of calling for it to be shaken in his 1895 tome Modern American Drinks. What to do?

Sweet or sweeter? The common thinking among bartenders is that the Widow’s Kiss is too sweet for contemporary palates. As a result, many mixologists dial down the liqueurs considerably; Jim Meehan, in The PDT Cocktail Book, suggests turning the traditional ratio of 2:1:1 to an astonishing 8:1:1, using 2 ounces of Laird’s apple brandy to a quarter ounce each of Bénédictine and yellow chartreuse along with two dashes of Angostura bitters. I made this version first, stirring it per Meehan’s instructions, and found it a solid if uninspired mix.

Being an American, I had my own remedy: more! I upped the liqueurs to half an ounce, certain that would liven up the joint. Instead that combination was worse, tasting like abnormally sweet if high-end apple juice.

In his book Imbibe!, David Wondrich observes that “this drink is a balancing act, and if one thing is out of whack, everything is.” He calls for rigorous adherence to Kappeler’s original proportions, and for shaking them once assembled. I did so, and was rewarded with an ambrosia of unbridled complexity. The crisp and the sweet move in perfect sync, their choreography inspired. I have my doubts that Brother Vincelli was an alchemist, but Brother Kappeler may have been. It just goes to show that the old ways are often the best, whether from 1510 Normandy or 1895 Manhattan.

The Widow’s Kiss

1 oz. apple brandy
½ oz. Bénédictine
½ oz. yellow chartreuse
2 dashes of Angostura bitters

Shake. Strain. Garnish with a cherry.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at