The Last Word is a vibrant cocktail that takes center stage. With gin, green chartreuse, maraschino liqueur, and lime juice, this elixir's hue is pale gold with a touch of green, like a tinted spotlight, and a maraschino cherry is perfectly choreographed at the center to add bright contrast.
Perhaps it was the drink's glowing stage presence that attracted Vaudevillian Frank Fogarty in 1917. Frank was dubbed "The Dublin Minstrel" for his Tipperary routes—and who knows a good drink or a good performance as well as an Irishman?
The Last Word was named in honor of a Vaudevillian
The Detroit Athletic Club is credited with its invention
The Waldorf-Astoria kept serving it during prohibition
Was rediscovered at a bar in Seattle in 2003
The Dublin Minstrel
As a noted “funmaker” on the stages of such illustrious theatres as Prospect, Greenpoint, and New Brighton during the 1910s, Frank Fogarty was no stranger to a life of revelry.
His droll, matter-of-fact comedic style made him well-loved in the entertainment industry. According to one reviewer in Wilkes-Barre, PA, he invited “a fury of the storm of good cheer.”
He recited tales of Irish folklore in his acts and made incisive observations about humanity that were called “genius” by some reporters of the era. One can imagine the Celtic wit telling an entertaining tale or two between sips of elixirs at bars around the country.
He even said himself (without egotism, of course), that he knew more stories than anyone else in his profession.
And because he plucked his stories from life, Fogarty built up his repertoire by traveling. The thespian’s home was in New York, but his career brought him to many locales, including Chicago, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Canada.
His stop in Michigan in 1917 proved to be valuable for him and for the rest of us.
The performer had trekked to Detroit on more than one occasion and performed at the Temple Theatre. As a lover of good cocktails, he popped in at the exclusive Detroit Athletic Club Bar on one of his trips.
Since 1916, the bar had been serving the gin/chartreuse mixture that would later be called The Last Word, and when Fogarty tried it, he was smitten.
He asked for the recipe and took it with him to his favorite bar at the famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. We should thank our lucky stars that the showman brought the word back to New York, because it wouldn’t be long before the 18th Amendment would put a damper on cocktail mixing across the country.
Michigan, in particular, was committed to going dry. Two years before the Volstead Act of 1919, Michiganders tossed out the firewater. And in pure Midwestern style, some bars like the Detroit Athletic Club politely closed their doors to comply with the law.
New Yorkers, however, weren’t such sticklers when the Volstead Act bore down on them. The Waldorf-Astoria was said to be one of New York’s many transgressors during prohibition.
Thanks to Fogarty, the hotel would serve up The Last Word (and plenty of other drinks), in private suites throughout the 1920s.
Perhaps even back then they were calling the concoction
The Last Word, because it was the Waldorf-Astoria’s publicist, Ted Saucier, who gave the cocktail its name in honor of the comedian who brought it back to New York in the nick of time.
So, what exactly does the name refer to? The Last Word was inspired by Fogarty’s delivery of a recitation at the end of his shows. He always had to have the last word. Indeed, Fogarty was so outspoken, he ventured into a political sphere when he became president of the Vaudeville Actor’s Union in 1914.
So charismatic and successful in his career, he made an impression on numerous venues and people, including the publicist who paid homage to him in his 1951 book, Bottoms Up—which immortalized the cocktail.
But unfortunately, for nearly five decades, the curtain closed on this promising elixir, nearly relegating it to the annals of forgotten history.
Nearly . . .
The Recovered Word
It’s been said that it’s hard to kill an actor, and the same is true for a good cocktail.
At the Zig Zag Café in Seattle back in 2003, a famous bartender in his area, Murray Stenson, discovered Bottoms Upwhile he was researching old cocktails.
I’ve always been a packrat, he said,
and I had a lot of the old cocktail books.
In the early 2000s, parts of the country had nostalgia for a more exciting time, a time when there was more glamour and escapism.
The late 90s were a time defined by general peace and economic success. The energy of the cocaine-fuled 1980s was finally waning, and Americans didn’t know what to do with themselves.
Think of movies like Office Space, or even the early parts of The Matrix. Then, when something exciting eventually happened, it was the worst terror attack perpetrated on American soil: September 11.
Tragic as the events of that day were, it gave Americans purpose, something to do. We united around a single cause, and the visual arts exploded with a new wave of creativity.
We entered a new Golden Age of Television, and it helped shape popular culture as a whole.
The Sopranos, Dexter, Breaking Bad, Prison Break, House of Cards: each show is iconic, and each is defined by a main character you love to hate.
And in Seattle, the fairly new Zig Zag Cafe pulled a card out of the Mad Men deck, creating a pocket of 1950’s romanticism with its vintage cocktail revival.
When Stenson read Bottoms Up, he was intrigued by the obscure Last Word and gave it a mix. He later said,
I tried it, I liked it, and it just took off. The mixologist was and is a straight-shooter, and since his customers liked the old-time drink, he brought it to his menu.
One of Stenson’s colleagues also praised the drink for being even simpler to make than a margarita. With equal parts of all the ingredients, the drink would be a sure hit with bartenders as well as their patrons.
And as it happened, the drink wasn’t only a hit with Stenson’s customers. With this rediscovery by a celebrity bartender, the drink spread like wildfire.
It was written in the Seattle Times in 2009 that “The drink became a cult hit around Seattle, then Portland, and was eventually picked up in New York City, where many bartending trends are set. The Last Word then started to appear on menus in Chicago and San Francisco and spread to several cities in Europe.”
What pleased Stenson especially was that the drink was reunited with its home city of Detroit, where The Detroit Athletic Club slapped it back on its menu not long after the revival.
To this day, the cocktail maintains fame in many parts of the world. Naturally, this has given rise to other cocktails inspired by the original act.
Spin-Offs of The Last Word
When coming up with new riffs of The Last Word, creators haven’t lost sight of the Vaudevillian who helped keep the drink alive. A variant called
The Dublin Minstrel includes Irish Whiskey in place of gin, to give a hearty toast to Frank Fogarty.
But if you’re looking for a smokey riff with a bit of sultry attitude, you can replace gin with Mezcal to make a more austere
The Final Ward is probably the most popular riff, and it was created in 2007 by Philip Ward in New York. This version’s main spirit is rye whiskey and it exchanges lime for lemon.
Then there’s one with a Spanish flare for those who want a drink that’s fun and floral. Just replace gin with tequila and add some lavender syrup and lavender bitters for a
With all the clever takes on this cocktail, maybe we could have an absinthe version paying homage to Ernest Hemingway (since the man loved his absinthe) and call it
The Epilogue. Just a thought.
But all these riffs show that the strength of this theatrical tincture is in its playfulness and flexibility. Like a good actor, it can wear many hats.
Like it is with all cocktail histories, there’s still some uncertainty about the definitive origins of The Last Word. Some have argued that Fogarty brought the cocktail to Detroit rather than the other way around.
This seems unlikely, however, since the DAC was serving it before Fogarty was known to have arrived in town for his minstrel show—the same trip that brought him to the DAC, allegedly for the first time.
But there’s a good chance that The Last Word is a variant of the older Aviation cocktail, which excludes Chartreuse and adds Crème de Violette to give the drink a floral flavor. And like The Last Word, this older drink sank into obscurity after prohibition.
But regardless of the questions that remain, The Last Word is a stand-alone drink that takes the spotlight with as much elegance as the monologist who inspired the name.
And we’re grateful that after its long history, from Detroit to New York, to obscurity and then around the world, this classic will not take a final bow anytime soon.
1 ½ oz Gin
1 ½ oz Green Chartreuse
1 ½ oz Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
1 ½ oz Lime Juice
Maraschino Cherry garnish (optional)
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker
fill with ice and shake until the liquid is ice cold
Strain into a chilled cocktail glass
Garnish with Maraschino Cherry if desired