The Last Word is one of those cocktails which, when you consider the ingredients, seems like it shouldn’t work. A mix of equal parts gin, Maraschino liqueur, green Chartreuse and fresh lime juice, it appears to be a hodgepodge of bottles blindly pulled from the back bar. But then you taste it, and you find out that not only do these ingredients work together, they were meant for each other. It’s a great drink, but yet, while every bartender worth his or her jigger is familiar with the cocktail, it’s not the household name that it should be.
Created at the Detroit Athletic Club during Prohibition, liquor lore has it that the drink was a riff on a Gimlet—or a traditional sour—made with herbaceous Chartreuse in order to hide the rancid flavor of bathtub gin. At the time, the cocktail was popular enough to be included in Ted Saucier's 1951 cocktail book, Bottoms Up, but disappeared not long afterwards from collective bartender memory. It remained dormant until 2004, when Murray Stenson resurrected the cocktail at the Zig Zag Café in Seattle. It was an immediate hit with both patrons and bartenders. Tasting the cocktail, it’s easy to understand why.
The Last Word is a perfectly balanced drink. Its four ingredients harmonize to create a cocktail that is at once refreshingly tart and subtly sweet, with a rich undercurrent of complex herbal bitterness and ripe cherry flavors. It’s kind of like drinkable key lime pie—but better. You have to appreciate a cocktail that is so simple to remember, even easier to make and also so uniquely its own thing.
And it’s not just tasty. Bartenders have grown to love this delectable drink because it’s ripe for variation. Much like the Negroni, the equal parts recipe and minimal ingredients make it an easy drink for bartenders to riff on, like a strong bass line in a jazz song. At The Narrows, a Brooklyn, New York cocktail lounge, head bartender and owner Keith Kenji swaps out the cocktail’s classic gin for a sweat-inducing, jalapeño-infused blanco tequila. It’s a definite shift from the standard recipe, but it still retains the tight balance of the original. The gin can also be subbed out for smoky mezcal, or something funky and fragrant like rhum agricole or cachaça, for a Daiquiri-esque concoction.
Sam Ross, the owner of New York’s Attaboy and cocktail den Diamond Reef, based his modern day classic, the Paper Plane, off of the Last Word. Swapping out bourbon for gin, the drink uses lemon instead of lime, and Aperol and Amaro Nonino in place of Chartreuse and Maraschino liqueur. While it may not be immediately recognizable as a Last Word variation, the Paper Plane mimics the classic cocktail’s equal part pours and its balance between sour, bitter and herbal.
Whether you stay true to the original recipe, or use the cocktail as a jumping off point for your own creation, the Last Word is a drink that deserves your attention. It should be right up there with Martinis and Whiskey Sours. It should be on every cocktail menu. And it should definitely be in your at-home cocktail making repertoire. If you’ve never made one before, we highly suggest you do so. Like, immediately. Here is our recipe.