Combine all ingredients in a chilled mixing glass. Fill with ice, stir and strain into a chilled coupe or other stemmed cocktail glass. No garnish.
As its name suggests, the Widow’s Kiss is one formidable cocktail. It's also a bit of an oddity. On the surface, it's a simple apple brandy-based Manhattan variation with the herbal liqueurs Benedictine and Yellow Chartreuse in lieu of sweet vermouth. But those liqueurs represent a big departure. Sweet vermouth is 15-17% ABV and usually has an earthy hint of bitterness on the finish which cuts the sweetness. These two liqueurs, on the other hand, are very sweet, have no bitterness, and are whopping 40% ABV!
The resulting drink, to be frank, is a bit uneven because there’s nothing to counterbalance the sugar or take the edge off the alcohol. But what the Widow’s Kiss may lack in finesse, it makes up for in horsepower. It's like an aging baseball player who can only manage a .220 batting average but you can still count on for 25 home runs a year. The Widow’s Kiss may have some holes in its game, but what it does, it does very well.
This is a great option for fans of apple brandy, either of these iconic liqueurs, or high octane stirred cocktails in general. I’m guilty of all three.
The Widow's Kiss first appears in George J. Kappler’s 1895 cocktail book “Modern American Drinks”. The original calls for 1 part apple brandy and a half part of each of the liqueurs. That's far too sweet if you ask me so I’ve dialed them back according to my tastes, feel free to make your own adjustments.
Apple Brandy vs. Calvados
The original recipe calls broadly for apple brandy without specifying a style. Some bartenders opt for Calvados, a French style of apple brandy with a rounder profile and typically 40% ABV, more on that here. But for me, Calvados accentuates the sweetness. I prefer a sharper-flavored American apple brandy, Laird’s 100 proof (50% ABV) is my go-to choice, always and forever. For a drink like this, I say go big, or go with a different cocktail.
Yellow Chartreuse is traditionally called for and it should stay that way. Any time Chartreuse is called for my instinct is always to use green Chartreuse (you can see a photo of the two across the page and read more about how they differ here) because it's more potent and intense, which I love, because I love Chartreuse. But in the Widow’s Kiss, Green Chartreuse is just too much, it overwhelms the other flavors. Plus, if there’s one thing this drink doesn’t need, it’s more alcohol. Yellow is more even-keeled and yields a more balanced drink.
In an attempt to “fix” this drink I’ve experimented with sneaking in a little vermouth to build a better bridge between the spirit and liqueurs, but I've had little success. Adding ¼ oz dry vermouth sort of works and helps with the sweetness. But I don’t think it necessarily makes the drink better. In the end, you just have to accept some drinks for what they are, not what they aren't.
Variations and Relatives
Like all drinks that have three ingredients, the Widow’s Kiss is very easy to modify. The easiest approach is the old Mr. Potato Head method, as we call it in the industry. Just swap out one of the ingredients for something else like-minded and presto, you have a new cocktail. Here are two of my favorite examples:
If you post a shot of a
Widow's Kiss on Instagram, pretty please tag
Created by Phil Ward when he was working at Death and Company. This variation is a simple lateral move that splits the apple brandy with rye whiskey. I may actually prefer this to the original. The rye’s spiciness adds some welcome backbone and evens out the apple brandy’s fruitiness. All without sacrificing any of the drink’s trademark potency.
1 oz apple brandy
1 oz rye whiskey
¼ oz Yellow Chartreuse
¼ oz Bénédictine
dash Angostura Bitters
Prepare as above.
Full disclosure, this isn't directly related to the Widow’s Kiss, but composition wise they are very much cut from the same cloth, plus they both have names that allude to venomous creatures (if you interpret the Widow's Kiss as a black widow reference). The Diamondback first appears in Ted Saucier’s 1951 "Bottoms Up" where it is called the Diamondback Lounge and attributed to the Lord Baltimore Hotel in Baltimore. That version calls for the drink to be shaken and served on cracked ice with a mint sprig. Serving it that way certainly won’t ruin the drink, though today it is usually prepared as written below, which I prefer.
The Diamondback has become a favorite of bartenders in the modern cocktail era which has spawned a family of variations of its own, all with serpentine names. There’s the Copperhead from Pegu Club which inverts the rye and apple brandy portions, the Cobra Verde from the aforementioned Death and Company with agricole rum and chamomile-infused rye, and the Puerto Rican Racer - also from Death and Company - with aged rum instead of rye and a dash of grenadine. I’ve been meaning to do one of my own and call it the California Mountain Snake. Stay tuned.
2 oz rye whiskey
½ oz apple brandy
½ oz Yellow Chartreuse
Prepare as above.
Bottles of Chartreuse: yellow on the left, green on the right.