Rediscovering the Last Word: A Cocktail Lost and Found

From Detroit to Seattle, the Last Word has stood the test of time.
From Detroit to Seattle, the Last Word has stood the test of time. Anchor Distilling Company
My first sip of the Last Word was at a bar where I’m known on a first-name basis, the result of one of those exchanges between a bartender and a trusting regular who asks to be surprised. I started with just a few guidelines. I felt like gin, I said, and I like refreshing rather than sweet (my youthful looks occasionally get me something resembling a cosmopolitan if I’m not careful).

My bartender presented me with an unassuming coupe, filled with a pale green liquid. It was, he told me, his favorite drink to make.

On the surface, it might seem like a simple cocktail. There are four ingredients in equal parts; it’s shaken with ice and served up, usually in a coupe glass, which became popular in the United States in the 1930s. The garnish is almost always lime, a wheel, a twist. Sometimes it comes unadorned, ready to speak for itself.

First, you add gin. I like the floral botanicals of Aviation, but anything mid-range will do. You’ll need maraschino liqueur (like Luxardo), and green Chartreuse, a French herbal liqueur made by Carthusian monks in southeastern France from a secret blend of 130 herbs and plants known only to two monks (interestingly, the liqueur came first, the color is inspired by it). Next, you’ll need the juice of a fresh lime or two.

You might think that these ingredients don’t go together, that there would be too many conflicting flavors, but it’s actually incredibly balanced. Though I usually stick to equal ratios, occasionally I’ll dial back the maraschino liqueur just a hint, so it isn’t too sweet.

The first written record of this drink is in a 1951 book by Ted Saucier, appropriately titled Bottoms Up! Saucier lists the Detroit Athletic Club as the birthplace of the drink. Indeed, the Club lists it on a menu from 1916 for 35 cents. Though it was a mainstay for many years, like a heartbreaking number of classic drinks, it fell out of favor and was forgotten.

In 2003, bartender Murray Stenson was looking for something distinctive for the menu of Zig Zag Café in Seattle. He found Saucier’s book, and the Last Word. It became an instant hit.

In the early 2000s, so close to what the industry calls the cocktail “dark ages,” the ability to make a Last Word became a sign that you were in good hands with your bartender. Not everyone was using fresh citrus then, and many back bars didn’t have Chartreuse or maraschino. The drink became a way to exchange an insider message. I’m in the club, it seemed to say.

The Last Word revival spawned many riffs, as the best drinks do. Perhaps the best known is Phil Ward’s Final Ward, which swaps gin for rye and lime for lemon. But nothing tastes quite like the original. For me, it truly is the last word.

Unlike many delicious drinks I fall in love with at the bar, this one doesn’t require much in the way of technique (no house-made ingredients involved). The green Chartreuse is a bit of a splurge, but since you’re not using much, it lasts for quite a while.

I saved the paper recipe attached to my first bottle of Luxardo when I bought it and keep it on my bar cart, even though I’ve learned it by heart. The equal parts also make it easy to scale up for a crowd.

The Last Word

3/4 oz gin (try a London dry, for best results)
3/4 oz green Chartreuse
3/4 oz maraschino liqueur
3/4 oz fresh squeezed lime juice

Shake all ingredients with ice, then strain into a chilled coupe.
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Although she started out in the wine industry, Cara Strickland was converted to cocktails by a Corpse Reviver No. 2. Now, you’ll rarely find her far from a Hemingway Daiquiri, Last Word, or Water Lily.