Hello again! This is your friendly Booze Nerd, back from a short hiatus. I hope you all have been drinking well. I know I have.
So here we are in the late fall, rushing towards winter and (in the northern hemisphere at least) colder days and especially nights. As far as I’m concerned, those crisp evenings settled in by a cozy fire call for one cocktail in particular: The Widow’s Kiss. I first discovered it in Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, and it quickly became one of our go-to cool-weather drinks.
Made from Calvados (French apple brandy) and a pair of France’s finest liqueurs, Chartreuse and Benedictine, the Widow’s Kiss is like drinking autumn in a glass. The drink first appeared in George Kappeler’s Modern American Drinks in 1895, though some sources suggest it was around in one form or another prior to that. Kappeler tended bar at the Holland House Hotel on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, which was then known as “Millionaire’s Row.” Perhaps this was the kind of rich drink that appealed to sophisticated tastes.
I should also warn you, this is a potent concoction. There are no fruit juices or soda water to dilute it. Some may even find it too sweet. Sip slowly, and savor it as you cuddle with your loved one by the fire. Or after a big holiday dinner.
Now, you may be asking, “Booze Nerd, you just named a bunch of fancy liquor I’ve never heard of. What’s a Calvados? Isn’t Chartreuse a color? Benedictines were monks, right?”
Calvados is French apple brandy from Normandy. The first record of it dates from around the 1530s, but trust me, folks were quaffing this stuff long before then. It had been somewhat relegated to the dust bin of history until the Phylloxera outbreak in the 19th century seriously threatened the traditional French wine industry. Calvados made a big comeback.
Up to 40 different kinds of apples and pears are used to distill Calvados (the pears are used to amp up the acidity in certain varieties). The French strictly regulate what is allowed to be labeled “Calvados,” and the brandy has its own A.O.C., or Appellation d’origine contrôlée that specifies how it may be made (just like Champagne does). In the premiere region of the Pays d’Auge, for instance, Calvados must be double-distilled, which makes it super mellow.
Calvados is usually aged about 2 to 3 years, with some specialty bottlings aged as long as 40! Even a young bottle of Calvados is likely to be smoother and richer in character than a North American equivalent such as apple jack. You can drink Calvados as an aperitif or digestive (before or after dinner); it’s quite fine on its own.
Chartreuse was first distilled by the monks of the Carthusian order, which was established in the 17th century, also in Normandy. Back in those days, most distillation techniques were employed in the manufacture of perfume. Later, when alchemy became quite the craze, strong mixtures of alcohol, herbs, roots, and flowers served as general cure-alls, to ward off all manner of illness. (In fact, if I were to imagine what a Healing potion might taste like, Chartreuse would fit the bill.)
When the colonization of the New World brought refined sugar to the Old, folks realized that a little of the sweet stuff made these medicinal potions quite quaffable. The market was also flooded with exotic botanicals from the Dutch Spice trade, and suddenly, everyone was jumping into the game.
The first Chartreuse as we would recognize it came along in about 1745. It was green, colored by the chlorophyll from its many herbs. It’s where we get the name for the color, in fact. In 1789, at the height of the French Revolution, all the religious orders were stripped of their property and thrown out of the country. The Carthusians were later reestablished, and in about 1840, they also started producing a yellow Chartreuse which got its color mainly from saffron. Yellow Chartreuse is a mellower spirit, and lower in alcohol content.
Now aside from that, no one, except for a couple of monks, really knows what’s in Chartreuse. Some say it’s two monks, others three, but there aren’t many of them, and these guys are allowed to speak to each other only once a week. So the exact makeup of the 130 ingredients in this legendary spirit remains a mystery to this day.
The motto of the Carthusian monks may enlighten us to some degree: Stat crux dum volvitur orbis, which translates as, “The Cross is steady while the world is turning.” Tip back enough Chartreuse and you may begin to understand their point.
Benedictine may be the more well-known of the spirits that make up The Widow’s Kiss. It’s another herbal liqueur that comes from Normandy, from the Benedictine abbey at Fecamp. Legend attributes a visiting Venetian monk named Dom Bernardo Vincelli as its discoverer. It’s said he exclaimed “Deo Optimo Maximo!” when he sampled the result of his happy distillation accident in 1510. This translates roughly as “Our best, for our Greatest God!” or something close. One wonders how much Dom Vincelli shared with his Lord as he poured the first shot.
(Deo Optimo Maximo is, incidentally, what the D.O.M. stands for on the bottle’s label.)
The Benedictine we currently enjoy is the result of a chance discovery in the 19th century by one Alexandre Le Grand, a lawyer sorting through the papers of the Benedictine Order after the French Revolution had played out. (More bonus Booze Nerd/Food Nerd points: Le Grand was the grandfather of Simone Beck a.k.a. “Simca,” who along with her dear friend Julia Child wrote the seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Small world.) Le Grand had a good head for business, and he found a ready market in America, especially, where drinks like Benedictine and Chartreuse became very popular.
Today’s Benedictine contains 27 botanicals including juniper, myrrh, angelica, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, vanilla, tea, lavender, and thyme. The process used to make it includes multiple blendings and distillations; then it is sweetened with honey and caramel and colored with saffron.
Benedictine is less sweet (and perhaps less cloying) than Chartreuse and sips very smoothly.
The adage says, “What grows together, goes together.” I think the Widow’s Kiss is a great example of how three of the finest spirits of northern France merge together to make a drink that is quite sublime.
The Widow’s Kiss
(adapted from Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails)
- 1 1/2 oz Calvados
- 3/4 oz Yellow Chartreuse*
- 3/4 oz Benedictine
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
Shake and strain into a cocktail glass. If you wish, garnish with a brandied cherry.
* You can use Green Chartreuse as well — though some will swear you shouldn’t. I say use whatever Chartreuse you can find.