Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Liquid: The Last Word

When it comes to the qualities that bartending connoisseurs look for in a cocktail, you couldn't find a more perfect match than The Last Word. It's made with gin. It uses two (relatively) lesser-known liqueurs with centuries-old recipes, including one made by monks in the mountains of France. It has a hard-to-verify Prohibition-era provenance, and it languished in obscurity for decades until being rediscovered. That's a complete bartender bingo right there. Oh, and it also happens to taste amazing.
The Last Word was invented at the Detroit Athletic Club in the '20s, according to Ted Saucier's 1951 cocktail tome Bottoms Up, which contains the first known mention of the drink in print. And while it enjoyed a brief moment in the spotlight, it largely fell out of favor until a few years ago, when influential bartender Murray Stenson at Seattle's Zig Zag CafĂ© dusted off the recipe. It soon spread through the usual bartending trade channels, eventually making its way to Boston. The early-adopter bars have been featuring it for a while now, but this season The Last Word finally seems to be on everyone's lips once again. 

The standard recipe is unique in that it calls for equal measures of four diverse and assertive ingredients: gin, green Chartreuse, maraschino, and lime juice. Green Chartreuse is the liqueur made from 130 herbs and botanicals that takes its name from the Grande Chartreuse monastery in France, where it was originally distilled by Carthusian monks. Maraschino is the bittersweet liqueur made from crushed cherry pits in Croatia. Both have become indispensable on well-stocked bar shelves.
"I think what works nicely about all the four ingredients in the cocktail is that they are all very distinct flavors," says Ryan Lotz, bar manager at Lineage (242 Harvard Street, Brookline, 617.232.0065). "It's one of those cocktails where there is a little bit of magic: it tastes like all four ingredients, but it doesn't. They all blend together for one unique taste of its own."

The flavors seem like they might compete, but they actually complement one another. Maraschino is often misjudged as having a strong cherry flavor, and while it is sweet when too liberally applied, it tends toward a more subtle almond. "It has those notes of cherry," Lotz says, "but it's earthy and funky, and not all that sweet." That earthiness plays well off the medicinal, grassy, bitter notes of the Chartreuse.

"I think it's interesting that it got reinvented in Seattle and is kind of making its way here," says Tom Mastricola, bar manager at Back Bay Social Club (867 Boylston Street, Boston, 617.247.3200), who lauds the cocktail's balancing act. "It's a little bit of sweet, a little bit of sour. It has a dry finish with the maraschino, then a big herbaceous tone at the end of it. With a half-ounce of everything, if it's built correctly, it's a great drink."

The Last Word's canonical status may be cemented by the fact that bartenders are now using its recipe as a base to play off of, the sign of any classic. "It's become this crazy cocktail people love to play with and tinker with and create new recipes off the base of four ingredients in equal parts," Lotz says. At some bars you'll find Bols Genever used in place of gin, or see yellow Chartreuse and its milder, brighter flavors swapped in for green. 

Bartending trailblazer Phil Ward of Death and Company in New York invented a new classic called The Final Ward that substitutes rye for gin and lemon for lime. The complex relationship of the liqueurs here is further enhanced by the spice of the rye.

"I never thought I'd go through green Chartreuse at the rate we do," says Lotz. "People love it. It's one of those cocktails where the first sip can be a shock if you don't know what to expect. The first sip I had was nothing like I expected. I almost didn't get it until I was halfway done and the flavors sort of unlocked for me." Lotz points to the ultimate source of the drink's appeal: ingredients working in harmony, but gently asserting themselves to the fore, always trying to get the last word in.

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