While it doesn’t seem like it should be a particularly versatile drink, the Last Word’s odd, equal-parts mix of gin, green Chartreuse, lime juice and maraschino liqueur has captured bartender imaginations ever since Seattle’s Murray Stenson resurrected the pre-Prohibition classic in 2004.
Twelve years later, it’s become a launching pad for versions served with bubbles, made smoky with Islay Scotch or mezcal, amped up with more spirituous or bitter components and even served hot.
“It’s like lasagna,” says Padraig O’Brien, co-owner of The Last Word, a six-week-old bar in Astoria, Queens, that offers four “House Word” variations on the menu, with more to come. “There are 100 different variations on lasagna, but they all work. It’s about getting the ingredients and the proportions right.”
The original, hailing from the Detroit Athletic Club, circa 1915, works pretty darn well on its own. But it faded quietly into obscurity until Stenson discovered it in Ted Saucier’s classic cocktail book Bottoms Up and re-popularized the drink during his tenure at Seattle’s Zig Zag Café. As the cocktail renaissance swept across the nation, it brought the Last Word with it.
While the classic still graces plenty of menus in its original form, it’s the drink’s many variations that have ultimately made it immortal. At New York’s bitters-focused bar, Amor y Amargo, where no juice is allowed in-house, Sother Teague omits the lime and adds Montenegro Amaro and lime bitters for his Oh, My Word!; in New Orleans, Abigail Gullo adds bubbles to The Last Laugh, turning the drink into something that more closely resembles an herbaceous French 75; agave spirits champion Phil Ward’s Division Bell showcases mezcal in place of gin; and so on.
Sam Ross’s Paper Plane may veer the furthest from the original, yet it remains one of the most successful variations (it’s now widely considered a modern classic). Created for Chicago’s Violet Hour in 2008 and also served at New York’s Milk and Honey, the predecessor to his bar, Attaboy, the drink mixes bourbon, Aperol, lemon juice and Amaro Nonino. It now has its own canon of spin-offs, like at Savannah’s Cotton & Rye, where the beer, wine and spirits lists feature exclusively American producers. Beverage director Kimberly Whitestone subs in High Wire Amaro (from South Carolina) and Leopold Bros. Aperitivo (from Colorado), making for a drier, earthier riff on Ross’s original. And it seems like just a matter of time before someone else varies the drink yet again, creating a bridge to the next Last Word variation.
It’s no coincidence that other equal-parts classics, like the Negroni, have achieved mainstream success; one cannot overstate the allure of a simple, three-ingredient formula in an age where many drinks veer toward the baroque. But the Last Word has another important element to its cult appeal: Chartreuse.
The complex, herbaceous liqueur is notorious as a fetish ingredient among modern bartenders and sommeliers, creating a whole sub-market for rare bottlings of Chartreuse. Another advantage: At heart, the Last Word is a basic sour, balancing citrus against the sweetness of liqueurs. “What we preach is cocktail families and rules of balance,” explained Attaboy’s Sam Ross, talking about the origin of his Paper Plane cocktail. In short, workshopping the Last Word has become an exercise in balance—of sweet and sour, of multiple, aromatically complex ingredients—for many bartenders.
At The Last Word, for example, the bar’s focus has evolved from swapping in different base spirits for gin—genever, mezcal or overproof agricole rhum—to subbing out lime juice for citric acid in the Stirred Word to using two steam wands they keep in their well for a hot version come wintertime. O’Brien suggests that this will be their only variation that won’t survive as an equal-parts offering. “We’ll have to make some changes to the ratio,” he says. “Hot lime doesn’t necessarily taste that good.”
When it comes to the original, O’Brien continues, it seems like a mix that almost shouldn’t work: pungent London Dry gin mixed with two powerful, complex liqueurs and a punch of lime. Yet, “those four bold ingredients come together to create something different,” he says. “The sum is greater than the parts themselves.”