The “Widow’s Kiss” is the Platonic ideal of cocktail names. It has an air of danger and mystery and it promises to seduce the drinker with its charms. So beguiling is the title that it was used by multiple pre-Prohibition greats, Harry Johnson, Jack Grohusko and William Schmidt among them. But it’s George Kappeler’s 1895 version—a mixture of apple brandy, yellow Chartreuse, Bénédictine and Angostura bitters—that has endured, likely because, with some tweaking, it still appeals to the modern drinker.
Kappeler’s Widow’s Kiss resurfaced during the first decade of the cocktail renaissance, appearing in both Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails (2009) and Jim Meehan’s PDT Cocktail Book (2011). But for Deke Dunne, his connection with the Gilded Age classic is more personal. Back in 2017, when he was cutting his teeth at the Gibson in Washington, D.C., an industry friend came in and ordered a Widow’s Kiss from him. Pretending to ring in an order, Dunne secretly Googled the recipe. His first attempt wasn’t a success. “It was too sweet, off-balance and the apple brandy was astringent and overpowering.” He and his friend workshopped the drink and got it to a better place by the end of the night.
But Dunne wasn’t finished with the Widow’s Kiss—he has carried the cocktail with him to different bars as a kind of signature, continuing to work on his spec. When he became beverage director of Allegory in Washington, D.C.’s Eaton Hotel, he often leaned on the drink when guests requested a stirred and boozy bartender’s choice. Eventually, Dunne decided to create a menu of classics to accompany the bar’s imaginative main menu, and the Widow’s Kiss was a shoo-in. But the spec that landed on the menu isn’t the same one Dunne had workshopped years before at the Gibson. This one was new and improved—with a capital “I.”
For Dunne, the Widow’s Kiss is a classic example of the Improved Cocktail genre, wherein sweeteners and aromatic elements like bitters and absinthe are split among multiple ingredients to create complexity. This innovation is typical of the later 19th century, an era that could be characterized as that of the “modifier cocktail,” according to Dunne, a time when liqueurs and vermouths frequently replaced traditional sweeteners. The two French liqueurs in the Widow’s Kiss—Bénédictine and yellow Chartreuse—began to appear in bar manuals in the 1880s, initially as ingredients in Pousse Café variations, but by the mid-1890s, when Kappeler published the recipe in Modern American Drinks, their use was no longer limited to that layered subgenre.
The Widow’s Kiss formula Dunne has developed over the years shows a careful desire to bring the drink into balance. His first change was to reduce the apple brandy base to one ounce and to add three-quarters of an ounce of Cognac, because the two aged fruit brandies “sing together.” He found that “the roundness and juiciness of the Rémy Martin VSOP really plays beautifully with this specific apple brandy.”
The apple brandy in question is an unusual choice. Rather than a bonded, four-year-old apple brandy like industry standard Laird’s, Dunne opts for Chapman’s Apple Brandy from local producer Republic Restoratives, a product which sees only two years in barrel. It’s a dry, fresh spirit that Dunne says lacks the astringency and metallic finish he finds in some other apple brandies.
As with many other modernized specs for old classics, Dunne knew he had to reduce the measures for both the Bénédictine and the yellow Chartreuse which, in the original recipe, comprised half the drink’s volume. He settled on a scant quarter-ounce of each. Though both are herbal and bring honey notes into the equation, Dunne sees them as distinctive elements in the Widow’s Kiss. Yellow Chartreuse lends fresh mint and pine, while Bénédictine imparts a stronger herb-and-spice profile with less perceived sweetness.
Finally, the one thing Dunne’s spec doesn’t alter is the amount of bitters he uses—two dashes of Angostura, just like the 1895 recipe.
But where Kappeler’s original recipe calls for the drink to be shaken, which was exceedingly common for spirit-forward cocktails at the turn of the last century, Dunne follows the rule of thumb codified by the cocktail revival that such drinks should always be stirred, giving the final product a “silky mouthfeel.” In order to preserve the desired texture, Dunne sticks to Kappeler’s choice to serve the cocktail up, to maintain the perfect level of dilution. Serving the cocktail down over even a large ice cube, he says, could swiftly mute its distinctive flavors.
After all these years, Dunne’s still smitten with the Widow’s Kiss. With its combination of apples and grapes, honey, herbs and baking spices, it’s a lesser-known classic that, for Dunne, has a particular autumnal appeal. “It’s the perfect fall cocktail.”