“We didn’t even take credit for the drink at first,” Kenneth Voyles, communications director and historian for the Detroit Athletic Club, told me as I scurried after him through the DAC’s art-and-mahogany-adorned hallways. “We just couldn’t find anything definite on it.”
I’d shown up at the worst possible time, the evening of a major wine dinner and the day before the Tigers’ home opener, and Voyles was rushing around trying to deal with a last-minute menu crisis. But he patiently answered the questions I directed to the back of his head, and he later accompanied me to the private club’s beautiful Tap Room bar so I could sample the Last Word in the place where it probably originated.
Dedicated cocktailers probably know the history: how Seattle bartender Murray Stenson pulled the drink from obscurity in the early 2000s, taking it from the pages of Ted Saucier’s 1951 cocktail book “Bottoms Up!” and adding it to the menu at the Zig Zag Café in Seattle, from whence its reputation spread. The Saucier book credited the DAC as the source of the drink and mentioned a well-known vaudevillian, Frank Fogarty, as having introduced it around New York.
Plenty of speculation surrounded the Last Word: that Fogarty came up with it; that it was invented during Prohibition, which would make it a rare bird indeed. But Voyles says the DAC did some digging for a culinary history of the club, “and one of my writers found this old menu, and there it is. And we know definitively when that menu was created, because the club magazine did an article about the menu in 1916.” Fogarty’s one known visit to the DAC took place the next winter, so although he might have liked the drink and taken the recipe back to New York, he probably didn’t come up with it.
I’m sticking to “probably” on much of this story because, although I’ve seen that menu — at 35 cents, the cocktail is the priciest on the list — it doesn’t mention ingredients. So probably that Last Word is our Last Word, but history is often murky, and booze history more so, because the people who should have been taking notes were taking shots instead.
Now that there’s a definite connection between the club and the drink, “we embrace it,” Voyles said, noting that the club’s new rooftop cigar bar, opened last year as part of its centennial celebration, is called the Last Word.
When Stenson rebooted the cocktail, word spread. It wasn’t just because the drink — an equal four-way split between gin, green Chartreuse, maraschino and lime — was good, but because back in the early days of the cocktail renaissance, a bar that could make one was a bar that had chops. “A decade ago, it was still a sign of a good bar if you had maraschino, if you had fresh citrus, if you had Chartreuse, if you had good gin,” says Joaquín Simó, former bartender at Death & Company and now co-owner of Pouring Ribbons, both in New York’s East Village. “And if you could mix these ingredients in equal parts, that meant precision, which meant you were jiggering” — still uncommon then.
I loved the Last Word at first glance. A pale, almost opalescent celadon, on the palate it’s the Traveling Wilburys, a strange supergroup of unlike and seemingly combative ingredients that together reach something close to perfection. (Maybe the Wilburys are an inapt metaphor, because there were five of them and the Last Word is a foursome, but I refuse to reference Damn Yankees. Ted Nugent doesn’t deserve to be in a metaphor with this drink. Even a tortured metaphor.)
Every one of the drink’s ingredients is a powerhouse, yet somehow it works. In fact, Phil Ward, who bartended at New York’s Pegu Club and Death & Company and now owns Mayahuel, an agave-spirits-focused bar and restaurant in the East Village, describes the drink as “a four-way car crash in which no one is hurt and everyone’s glad they met afterward.”
In the years since its rediscovery, the Last Word has inspired a series of rejoinders, as bartenders have taken its four-way, equal-parts template and devised variations, mixing up the spirits, modifiers and citrus. Several — such as Ward’s Final Ward (rye, green Chartreuse, maraschino, lemon), Simó’s Naked & Famous (mezcal, yellow Chartreuse, Aperol, lime) and Sam Ross’s Paper Plane (bourbon, Amaro Nonino, Aperol, lemon) — have themselves become part of the cocktail canon; all three are included in author Robert Simonson’s recent app, Modern Classics of the Cocktail Renaissance.
Ward also devised the Pete’s Word (Laphraoig Scotch, green Chartreuse, maraschino, lime) and has done a riff at Mayahuel using pineapple-infused mezcal. He doesn’t quite consider his four-ingredient Division Bell one of the family; its ingredients aren’t in equal portions, so he thinks it doesn’t count. The equal-parts blueprint is tricky, he says, “and there aren’t that many that are really good, so I feel like it’s an odd template that should be respected.” To be in the clan, Ward says, a drink should be four equal parts, one of which is citrus, and shaken (which would put the Blood and Sand in the club as well, though it, like the Last Word, is a rediscovered ancestor).
Such cocktails are “really difficult to devise, because the balance has to be just right. But when you get one that works, it’s foolproof,” Kara Newman, spirits editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine and author of the forthcoming “Shake. Stir. Sip.: 40 Effortless Cocktails Made in Equal Parts,” told me by email. Other than the three-ingredient Negroni, she says, the Last Word is probably the most riffed-on equal-parts drink. “I think [bartenders] appreciate the magic of the symmetrical structure — but let’s get real, they also like them because you don’t need to remember all the proportions. . . . If you can remember what goes in the drink, you’re golden.”
In Detroit, I found variations at multiple bars. The Sugar House, which at the time had a menu on which every drink was keyed to a particular moment during Prohibition, served a drink called A Machine Gun Is the Last Word, combining barreled gin, Cardamaro, Aperol and lemon in a Chartreuse-rinsed glass (which, given its resemblance to a Paper Plane, probably makes it a riff on a riff). Owner Dave Kwiatkowski pointed me to another of his creations, the delicious Rites of Spring (gin, génépy, Aperol and lemon). The Standby, which opened in December, offered the Last Straw, head bartender Joe Robinson’s blushing variation in which the Chartreuse is infused with strawberries and the maraschino is kicked out for elderflower liqueur.
It’s certainly a coincidence that a city known for an industry that once thrived on its capacity for replication produced a cocktail spec that has now been rejiggered worldwide. Unlike with the early automobiles that came out of Detroit, though, it’s hard to find a variant of the Last Word that has bettered its origins, though you may find a favorite based on your spiritual leanings. (My affection for smokier mezcals biases me toward Simó’s Naked & Famous.)
Still, who can say? Even now, there may be a bartender composing a variation that will be the Porsche or the Tesla to its early progenitor. (Certainly there’ll be a Yugo or Pinto among the bunch as well; when the spec doesn’t work, don’t even get behind the wheel.) But given cocktailers’ tendency to experiment, to quote each other’s drinks and their own, even if some new variation improves on the original, it still won’t be the Last Word. Just the next one.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.