“Ever hear of the Detroit Athletic Club?” Brix and Rye bartender Evan Bucholz responded when I asked him about my cocktail, The Last Word, on a recent summer evening in Greenport, New York. He motioned to a small framed photo hanging near the bar.
When my curiosity was sufficiently piqued by a few more details, I decided to unwind the full yarn of The Last Word’s unlikely odyssey—one that took it, I would discover, from complete obscurity to the local watering hole of the inventor’s grandson.
A Vaudevillian Brings His Cocktail to Detroit
The Last Word was first served at the DAC soon after it opened in 1915. For 35 cents, you got equal parts of gin (any kind you like), fresh lime juice, maraschino liqueur, and green chartreuse. By most accounts, it landed on the menu via visiting vaudevillian Frank Fogarty—AKA the Dublin Minstrel. He was a resident of Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood but occasionally performed in Detroit’s theatre district, just steps away from the athletic club. Frank ended up leaving show business in 1918 and he left The Last Word in Detroit. After that, there’s not much more on record about the cocktail. Frank returned to Brooklyn and worked for the Borough President for seven years before dying of pneumonia in 1925. The family he left behind included his only child, Frank Jr.
The Last Word Resurfaces Out West
Fast forward to Seattle, 2003. The Last Word had fallen off the cocktail radar decades earlier (even the bar at the DAC no longer served it), but bartender Murray Stenson excavated the formula from the 1951 cocktail recipe book Bottoms Up by Ted Saucier. On the prowl for something unexpected, Stenson added it to the menu at Seattle's Zig Zag Café. The Last Word became a Seattle smash and thrust an unwitting Stenson into the spotlight.
"I was initially drawn to the Last Word while trying to feature cocktails to give the ZigZag Cafe a unique identity," Stenson explained to me. "At that time, few bars in Seattle had Maraschino liqueur or green Chartreuse...it changed my life. I became 'famous' for someone else's drink. I think the popularity is due to the liquid alchemy of making both gin and Chartreuse palatable to people that normally don't drink either. The slightly sweet, nutty, herbal flavor is polarizing. Most people like it, but those that don't, really don't. Frank Bruni, of the New York Times, hated it."
Back To Red Hook
St John Frizell worked at the Pegu Club in New York in 2007 and says that by that time, The Last Word was a kind of secret handshake among cocktail bartenders. "Knowledge of the drink and its proportions, as well as possession of its then-obscure ingredients, signaled a serious interest in the mixological arts," he says. "It was a back-pocket drink, the kind of thing we pulled out to impress the customer who was always looking to try something new, or at least something very old.”
In 2009, Frizell opened up Fort Defiance in Red Hook, Brooklyn and brought the cocktail with him. When, in 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit the neighborhood and the bar, Frizell sold “junk bonds”—virtual gift certificates worth half of what they cost—to get the bar open again. Then, an unlikely patron appeared. In a strange twist of fate, a local named Frank Fogarty—indeed the grandson and namesake of the man who introduced the Last Word to the DAC nearly a century before—had purchased a bond.
Frizell confirmed the relation and immediately invited Fogarty to the bar. “Frank Fogarty, the attorney, had never heard of the Last Word before I contacted him, but that night we shared a couple at the bar, and agreed that they were…greater than the sum of their parts,” says Frizell.
My first Last Word at Brix and Rye arrived before me with a pale-green hue reminiscent of something you’d see in the lot of a Cadillac dealership circa 1970. But one sip in I could see how it got its name. This souped-up, four-cylinder classic leaves you speechless. It’s a perfectly balanced melting pot of herb, citrus, bitter, and sweet—a distinctly American comeback story.