Weekend Cocktail: The Merry Widow

Weekend Cocktail: The Merry Widow

As I write, I am embarking on what promises to be a pleasant little adventure: two weeks bopping around Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic with my wife (whose photography typically graces this column). This is our first trip to Europe – a trip she richly deserves for having stuck it out with me, despite my generally incorrigible nature and my propensity to be, as she says, “freaking impossible, all the time.”

The trip is a long time coming. As it happens, I’ve kept her waiting for the entire duration of our marriage. I possessed something of a weak hand when the subject of matrimony was first up for a vote. In an attempt to sweeten the pot (because boy, did it need sweetening) I intimated that a trip to Europe could be in the offing – conditional upon her acceptance of my proposal, of course. She, perhaps dazzled by my negotiating prowess, (maybe even genuinely fond of me, I haven’t ruled that out) accepted. Now some undisclosed number of years later here we are flying off to Budapest so I can make good on my part of the deal. This is one bill I’m very happy to see come due.

As the Dewings do Eastern Europe, I’ll be sure to keep a watchful eye for new and interesting spirits that I will dutifully share with you, Dear Reader. If I’m able to overcome the language barrier, I may even return with word of an original cocktail or two. While I practice my Czech, read on for this weekend’s featured drink.

The Merry Widow

Since we were on the subject of my wife’s remarkable patience with me, this cocktail seemed appropriate.

There are a number of variations on the Merry Widow, some of which bear little resemblance to any of the others. When in doubt, I always fall back on tradition.

Today’s recipe comes from the Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock, as estimable a barman as ever there was. The name comes from a popular operetta, though not one I can boast of having experienced. That’s not really my scene, though I can be counted upon to tough it out if there’s an after-party.

This classic cocktail makes good use of anise liqueur and Bénédictine to achieve an intriguing, mildly complex yet approachable taste. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 2 dashes Absinthe (a substitute is acceptable – I used Pernod)

  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters

  • 2 dashes Bénédictine

  • 1 1/2 oz dry gin

  • 1 1/2 oz dry (French) vermouth

  • lemon twist for garnish

This one is a snap to prepare. Add all ingredients to a mixing glass, and then stir until cold. Be careful to use a measured, smooth stir that doesn’t churn up and aerate the mix. A good stir lets the flavors of the liquor shine through without diluting or softening them, and gives the drink an appealing transparency.

Once properly chilled, strain into a cocktail glass, then twist the lemon peel over the drink and drop it in.

This is a drink with some personality, though it may not be for everyone. With the anise and Bénédictine, there is a marked sweetness to it. It’s almost a bit indiscrete on the tongue.

The anise is rather forward. As mentioned, the recipe calls for Absinthe but a Pastis from France or a Mediterranean Anisette can be used in its place. Pernod worked well for me, and ouzo would probably get within striking distance of decent.

The sugar and herbal notes of the Bénédictine add complexity and a roundness to the overall taste of the beverage. Be careful not to overdo it with either the Pernod or the Bénédictine. It’s surprising just how far a few dashes can go.

Such assertive sweetness is always at risk of unbalancing the drink. Here the base spirit plays its part. The dry gin and French vermouth bring the lady down to earth, adding the necessary bite to save it from ruinous excess. Rather than oversweet, the finish is refreshingly bitter.

An aromatic, layered, and ultimately somewhat strong cocktail, the Merry Widow was a pleasure to drink. It would be worth your while to become acquainted.

Neal Dewing lives and works in Portsmouth, Virginia. He is the co-host of The Fifth Estate, a podcast examining culture and politics.
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