On this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy is joined by Portland, Ore.–based bartender, beverage director, author, and editor Jim Meehan. The two explore the Last Word and discuss the history of the classic cocktail and dive into its influence on modern mixology. Tune in for more.
Jim Meehan’s Last Word Recipe
- ¾ ounce gin, such as Tanqueray or Perry’s Tot Navy Strength
- ¾ ounce Green Chartreuse
- ¾ ounce Luxardo Maraschino liqueur
- ¾ ounce fresh lime juice
- Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with Kold-Draft ice.
- Shake until well chilled.
- Strain into a Nick & Nora glass.
Check Out the Conversation Here
Tim McKirdy: It is the man that audio transcription software likes to call Jimmy Han. It is, of course, Jim Meehan. Thank you so much for joining us today on the “Cocktail College Podcast.”
Jim Meehan: Excited to be here, Tim.
T: I’ve got a starter question here for you today, starter for 10, Jim.
J: Does that mean 10 points, or the 10th question you’re starting with first?
T: Starter for 10 points.
J: OK, 10 points.
T: Are you the kind of person who likes to have the Last Word?
J: I love the Last Word cocktail. I’ll take those 10 points.
T: I’m excited for this one because this is, of course, a historic cocktail and we’re going to dive into those roots there. One thing I find fascinating about the Last Word is also its influence on modern mixology. This is one of those ones where we get to do two deep dives on one drink. It’s a twofer.
J: I’m all for the twofer.
The History of the Last Word
T: Do you want to talk about that right there? Do you want to dive in straightaway to that history and give us an outline of the backstory of this drink? Is this one where its origins are known or is it more shrouded in mystery? You get a lot of those in the cocktail world.
J: Well, the exciting thing for me about this drink, the Last Word cocktail is a cocktail that really exemplifies the contemporaneous present of the past. When I say that, it sounds fancy, but what I mean is that there are certain drinks that are old drinks that we have an untethered connection to, which we really have no understanding of. And really, it’s very hard to establish where they came from, like the Manhattan cocktail or the Margarita cocktail, the Martini cocktail; there are many places where we could guess where they came from and there are myths and legends. But the Last Word is a cocktail where we know exactly where it was printed and then where it came from. I think, more importantly, it’s a drink that was made by a bartender in Seattle named Murray Stenson at the Zig Zag Cafe, who made it for years and years and years for all sorts of folks, and he really brought this drink to the forefront of a lot of our minds. I love the history of this drink because it’s connected to someone who is near and dear, and who brought it back in a very personal way and made it, in some ways, his signature drink, even though it was a classic.
T: When would this have been… Sorry, is this the rediscovery of the cocktail, you mean?
J: Yeah, I wouldn’t even say it’s the rediscovery of the cocktail. The drink originally appears in “Bottoms Up” by Ted Saucier, a book that was published in the… I think the 1950s. It’s a book that’s filled with all sorts of pinup art. If you like pinup art, and if you collect old cocktail books, it’s a pretty book and it’s a book worth adding to your collection, but I wouldn’t say that it’s one of the more important cocktail books to collect. The Last Word is the most significant cocktail that comes from that book. I think that when we talk about discovery or rediscovery, I think bartending is a lot like DJing. And when I say that, I mean that bartenders are not typically making original music, they’re taking tracks or records, and they’re putting them in their crate or their bag and then they’re playing them at a club. I think in that sense, this drink really had its most important DJ and club in Zig Zag Cafe and Murray Stenson. I discovered it, or I first was made aware of this drink by a colleague of mine at the Pegu Club named Brian Miller. We both opened the bar in 2005. Brian frequently went back to Seattle and visited Murray and brought back drinks like this. There’s a Dubonnet drink called Don’t Give Up the Ship, and he also brought back a drink called the Trident, which Robert Hess had popularized in Seattle at that time — 2005. For those of you who are a little bit younger on the podcast, the iPhone doesn’t come out until 2007, and while people are online in 2005, we’re not a digitally connected society at that point. The repertoire of drinks we’re making is in many ways, part of a spoken word.
T: Like a word-of-mouth culture?
J: Yeah, it remains something that is part of spoken word. The information we had was told to us in many ways, as opposed to discovered on a Google search.
T: Brian Miller there, you mentioned, a friend of the show. I believe he may have also mentioned Murray during his episode, I would need to give that one a re-listen, but definitely shout-out there to him. Also something, I’ve got a question for you in terms of preference. You spoke about those cocktails and how their origins are fuzzy at best. They’re specific ones, whether it’s the Manhattan or the Margarita, like you say, and then you look at a drink like this, like the Last Word, and we really can trace a lot of its history and these important moments in its history. Which one is kind of more appealing to you, just from a philosophical standpoint or just a sentimental kind of way of looking at cocktails? Would it be those ones where we can trace it right back or would it be those ones that are a little bit more open to interpretation?
J: I personally think that the one thing that I’ve tried to do in my career, going back to editing the Food and Wine Cocktail Book in 2005, was based a lot around what I saw Brian Miller doing at the Pegu Club. Brian had a satchel full of these little stenographers notebooks and we were doing all this recipe development every night at the Pegu Club, and Brian had sharpened pencils and was constantly writing things down, erasing and documenting everything in real time. I think that while Brian, I don’t know where, where that, where he went with that, I always told him he needed to, like, publish it or figure out what to do with it. He’s not a, he’s not a promotional person or not someone who’s very digitally savvy, so it’s probably all still on paper for him. I think that when I saw Brian doing that, I was very cognizant of the fact that I was living in a historical moment. I think Brian was too, and he was trying to capture it. I would say that the drinks that we can actually say like, this is the moment that this was created, or this was the person who it was served to, I have much more reverence and fondness for that sort of drink because I think that allows me, going back to this idea of the bartender as like DJ, it comes with the metadata, for me as a bartender, to be able to understand when I should play this drink, who I should serve it to, and what will be resonant for the mood or for the recipients of the drink. I think the drinks that are sort of palimpsest where we sort of just write and rewrite different versions of history, I think are… They’re really frustrating because for me, as a sort of person who cares about the history of a drink… There’s a lot of imposter syndrome that goes on, and everyone sort of claims that it was theirs or they did it, or kind of makes a version of it that’s their own, and that’s frustrating to me.
T: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I love that kind of analogy that you give there of the tracks and the DJ, and also that anecdote there about Brian. I mean, we had Jared Brown on recently who just published Dick Bradsell’s cocktail book, “Dicktales,” and he was talking about, they have, this is not a printed, in the terms of like printed text. These are copies of his original notes when he was coming up with drinks. I think having those things preserved in history doesn’t just give us the definitive story, but also tells us what was going on in people’s minds at the time. I think it just gives us so much more perspective on that era and the drink itself. I find that fascinating personally.
J: I agree. I think that I picked a copy of that book up as soon as I saw it, and I just think it is, it’s vital. It’s really, and it’s very interesting. Especially someone like Dick, who is someone who just passed somewhat recently and whose career was very much of my time or, in our time. I was able to go visit him behind the bar and I think that we spend a lot of time talking about dead people’s drinks and don’t spend a lot of time talking about living people’s drinks. Certainly, living people, some of whom are maybe on their way, maybe moving on pretty soon. I’m glad that Jared and Anastasia and Bia put that book out, because I just think that so much of what we’re doing now is a byproduct of what Dick did or what Dale did.
Ingredients Used in the Last Word
T: Yeah. I love the idea of standing on the shoulders of giants. Also, that’s a really natural segue into the next question that I had for you here. Just to put it out there, the composition of this drink is gin, Chartreuse, Maraschino, and lime juice. It’s equal parts, we’ll get into that. As I mentioned at the top, one thing I find fascinating about this is how many quote-unquote “modern classics” this has inspired and just some incredible drinks out there. How exceptional is it that not only are we talking four ingredients, and equal parts, but four very complex ingredients that work? I mean, this is not the formula that you would expect to be the one that can be so, I don’t know, so endlessly riffed on and come up with these incredible other drinks. How do you feel about that?
J: I think that is accurate. I think that it does show how much of a sort of needle and a haystack, or a bit of a miracle this recipe is. I think that A) the composition, like you said, four ingredients, equal parts, is somewhat wild. I also think that as we think about the sort of vintage spirits, forgotten cocktails many of which were made with lost ingredients that either had to be reformulated and reintroduced or someone like Eric Seed brought back as an importer around 2006 or 2007. Part of the miracle of this drink was that green Chartreuse was still available back when Murray was mixing with it and that he was able to source Luxardo Maraschino, which is sort of standard. One thing I don’t think gets talked about enough is that back when this drink first started getting made by Murray, we had like five gins at the Pegu Club. Or we had very few tequilas, very few. Vodka, there were a lot of different vodkas available at this time, but there wasn’t a broad selection of other analogs. For instance, Genepi, or some of the sort of Chartreuse analogs that are available now where they were not around. I think that this is an interesting drink because… Eric Seed didn’t need to save us and bring back one of the ingredients; these ingredients were around, and thankfully they hadn’t been reformulated like America con, or Lillet, or say, Campari, to taste so different that we couldn’t imagine what it tasted like when it was originally created. I think that this is a miraculous formula, but it’s also miraculous because the ingredients that it was originally created with are still kicking around unmolested 50 years later.
T: Yeah, I think that is fascinating. And the fact that there’s four of them in there. The odds of that happening really do diminish, so I think that’s a really great point. How about those riffs before we do the deep dive on the Last Word itself and its profile. How about those riffs? Would you say that maybe, my understanding is, probably the Paper Plane is the one that kicks it off, or it’s certainly the one that was the most well-known riff from the beginning.
J: The interesting history of this drink from the East Coast perspective, I’m sure there’s like a West Coast perspective that Amy Boudreau or Paul Clark or Robert Hasser, or even some like Marco Dionysos down in San Francisco who was also working with Chartreuse and his Swizzle, would be able to tell you about. But the virtuoso, Mr. Potato Head cocktailologist of the east coast was Phil Ward. Any drink that was worth riffing on, Phil had 17 riffs on it before anyone even got started thinking about riffing on it. So the first one would have been the Final Ward, which Audrey put on the menu at Pegu Club, and I believe that would’ve come before the Paper Plane, which would’ve come soon after, but not before that. That was just Phil subbing Rittenhouse for gin, and I believe yellow Chartreuse for green Chartreuse. I definitely would agree with you that the Paper Plane is far and away the most significant riff, but in many ways, Nonino and Aperol are distant, distant, distant from Chartreuse and sort of almost other species than Chartreuse, and Maraschino. I would say that the Final Ward would be the drink that I would say is the most famous riff on it with Paper Plane being a sort of distant relative.
T: It’s funny that you mentioned that and about Phil’s quality of the Mr. Potato Head there, taking that idea of cocktails, because he has another one, the Division Bell.
J: Exactly. As I said, he would do so many riffs so quickly that were all so good that you almost got to a point where you’re like, “All right, Phil, like that’s a cocktail, I’m going to find something else.” He really wore everything out. He, at that time, really had like a cult group of people who drank at his bar, who would’ve come and Phil made them the drink, and then they’d come to another bar and be like, “Hey, will you make me Phil’s drink?” And we’d all look at them and be like, “No, Phil’s bartending two blocks away. You can go ask him for his own drinks.”
T: I actually had Phil make me a Division Bell just last week and I can confirm it’s still a wonderful drink, and he still knocks them out very well. I think it would be remiss of us, sorry, not to mention the last one in this kind of pantheon of Last Word riffs, which would be the Naked and Famous, another wonderful drink — Joaquin Simo, a friend of the show as well.
J: Yeah, and I think that the Naked and Famous also falls under that. I would say the Naked and Famous is in some ways more of a Paper Plane riff than the Last Word riff, but I would agree that is another drink that will become a modern classic.
T: Wonderful. Well, this is obviously an episode about the Last Word. We’ve paid our respects there to those modern iterations, and riffs and whatnot. But what are you looking for from this cocktail? Obviously, the answer is balance, but with these powerful ingredients being used in equal proportions, what do you want to taste in this drink?
J: One of the other miracles of this drink for me is that for a drink that’s old, a lot of recipes 50, 60, 70 years later need some rejiggering, as far as the proportion goes. Maybe a little more gin, or a little less of this, but I think the fascinating thing about the Last Word is that it stands true and balanced, in my opinion, at equal parts. I would say that what I’m looking for is that the Maraschino is going to shine through if you’re mixing with Luxardo, the Chartreuse has this, obviously, bracing herbal sweetness. I’m looking for the lime juice to have been squeezed from a lime within six hours of service, and not be either sour mix or yesterday’s lime juice, or perhaps it could be something that’s squeezed right then and there. I think with the gin, I think that there are… Going back to when the strength became popular, we would’ve mixed this with Beefeater, or Plymouth, or Tanqueray, but now there are 700 gins in America. So I’m looking for a gin that has a London Dry profile, and I think that because of the power of the Chartreuse and the Maraschino, I’m looking for something that’s not… I mean, Chartreuse is obviously over a hundred proof, so I think that some bartenders might want to use a navy strength gin here to sort of bring out the juniper notes. I think that’s going to make this drink a little strong. I’d say a classic London dry is what I’m looking for.
T: Let’s do that now, let’s move in, let’s focus even closer on gin. Classic London dry, you’re not looking for navy strength, then obviously there are a couple of modern iterations here of the London dry style. Where do you find yourself landing in terms of the sweet spot for ABV, and do you have any brands that you wish to call out? No pressure.
J: Yeah, I mean, I think that I would like this drink with a full-strength London dry, so Plymouth, which isn’t a London dry but which is similar enough, will work fine. I would say that when Beefeater recently dropped its proof, it sort of went from like my sort of everyday gin to sort of out of the rotation a little bit. I think Tanqueray is going to be great here, I think Fords is going to be great here, Bombay, Sipsmith, something that is, something that’s not trying to share the local botanicals that they’ve forged, but something that really is sort of centered around juniper.
T: Yeah. Those are all wonderful choices there. It’s funny that the other ingredient we’ll get onto is the Luxardo Maraschino, the cure there. Of course, that producer now has their own gin. Are you familiar with that, or are you familiar with the story of that?
J: I’m not, no.
T: I was out there, just as a little sidebar here, I was out there February 2020, just before it all happened. Got an amazing opportunity to visit the producer, and they were actually just tasting. I think they very, very recently just came out with this new gin. It is now available in the U.S. for sure. They were telling us the backstory of that, and I believe, I don’t want to misremember anything here, but I believe the gist of the story goes that that particular part of Italy would’ve been occupied during the Second World War. Prior to that time, they were actually making gin. I think in recent times, they were going through some family records and came to realize this and were actually put in contact with someone who had their original family recipe because it had fallen out of their possession, or been taken away from their possession, as I understand it. They managed to, through whatever means, get that recipe back. I believe that did inspire the gin that is on the market today. I also understand that I think they made a few modifications, they realized that through technology, ingredients, and whatnot, they had to tweak some things. But kind of a fascinating story that they were doing that back in the day and I mean, you do find these ingredients together in multiple cocktails.
J: Yeah, I think that the Aviation cocktail is another one where obviously gin and Maraschino play really well. I think that Matteo Luxardo is great, I’ve hung out with him all over the world at various bar shows and what they’re doing at Luxardo is excellent. I think that the Maraschino in particular though…
T: Oh, it’s the real star. It’s the real star of the show.
J: Yeah, really nothing like it.
T: Yeah, I think they do accept visitors… I know they accept visitors because they’ve got a nice little gift shop there where I spent a lot of money, so if you ever find yourself in the area of folks there, or nearby worth a detour, it’s a great little trip there. Yeah, moving on to the next ingredient though, green Chartreuse. Maybe just a primer for some folks that are not too familiar, and they look at this recipe and they say, “Well, I’ve got yellow on my shelf, but not green.” That’s not going to be a like-for-like substitution, right?
J: No, the green Chartreuse is a little stronger than the yellow Chartreuse. The yellow Chartreuse has a kind of honeyed quality to it as far as its like sweetness profile, and the Genepi really kind of is more, I think, prominent on the yellow Chartreuse than on the green. The green has more, for me, more evergreen, piney, alpine notes that really sort of pair beautifully with gin and lime juice. I would say that the other thing is the green Chartreuse is the original and the yellow Chartreuse was formulated, I think a few decades later. They’re both ancient as far as spirits go, but green is different and it’s going to make a more authentic and delicious Last Word than yellow.
T: Is that the, I mean maybe there is none, but is that the anchor of this drink? Is that the one ingredient that pulls everything together, or is it just this case of them all just kind of swirling around together in perfect harmony?
J: I would argue that it’s the latter. They’re really all important. I think that with a four-ingredient drink, typically you’re saying there’s more places to hide the evidence of what’s necessary, what’s important. I would say that in this case, they all carry their weight pretty equally, including lime juice. I think that this is a drink that fresh lime juice is key for.
T: Before we move on from Chartreuse, one final thought here. How do you feel about this ingredient’s now status? Or maybe it’s been for a long time, but in recent times, it feels like it’s got this status of this collector’s item, people going out there looking for old dusty bottles as they would do in other categories, and just realizing that this thing can really last forever almost. Is that something you’ve seen happen over time or has that always been the case for Chartreuse?
J: It was never, I mean, we carried Chartreuse VEP at Gramercy Tavern back at this time, and I was aware of the elixir vegetal. I think Lynell carried it at Lynell’s and got me a few bottles there. I did have the good fortune to visit the distillery and sort of see the museum and was made aware of some of the really cool old bottles they made. They made a bicentennial bottle that, I was born in ’76, and I would always love to get my hands on that, but yeah. Around the same… A little after, I think it was Billy Sunday in Chicago. It was one of the first bars that I was aware of that was collecting old amari and really sort of… I think that, obviously, Chartreuse is not an amaro, but I think that they were collecting old amari in particular, and then aged Chartreuse might have been something that I think sommeliers kind of got behind, I know that was something that they’re interested in. I would agree that in following in the footsteps of the sort of whole Pappy American whiskey thing, spirits collecting has really started becoming like a sort of Bitcoin for rich people. And they really do take a lot of the joy out of it. So yes, it was never a thing when this drink was originally coming around, but this drink was originally coming around with the Green Chartreuse that was available; it wasn’t being made with, like, vintage bottlings. I will say that having tried old Chartreuse, it is special and it is worth it if someone has some, just giving it a try. I know Joaquin at Pouring Ribbons opened with a selection of old Chartreuse that he really loved and it’s special, but it’s also like you said, it’s now the thing of rich investment bankers. It’s not really for us anymore.
T: No. You know, we just can’t have these nice things that get taken away from us, but there we go, alas. Maraschino, we covered a little bit about it, but can you maybe explain what this is and also, I mean, you’re the expert here, but I can’t off the top of my head think of other cocktails that include it in such a large proportion. What is it? What’s it bringing to the drink and yeah, is that an outlier?
J: Yeah, Maraschino was an interesting one, especially back then because Maraschino was synonymous back then with the sort of like nuclear red cellulose cherries that were served in Shirley Temples and Manhattans, regretfully back then. Around the time that Luxardo Maraschino started really sort of making its way with both the Brooklyn Cocktail and the Aviation cocktail and the Last Word, Henry Price, who was the importer of the product, started bringing around the Luxardo cherries which were the marasca cherries that were used to make the Maraschino and served in syrup. Audrey at the Pegu Club, and other bartenders would buy these giant No. 10 cans of them and serve their Manhattans and drinks with cherries, with real cherries instead of those nuclear red cherries. In the early days, people were thinking you were going to add cherry juice to their drink. It is not cherry juice, and it is not a liqueur akin to sort of maybe cherry heering or a liqueur made by maceration. It’s a liqueur made by distillation where something akin to Kirsch Brandy or Kirsch eau de vie or schnapps is distilled, and then the cherry spirit is aged in, I believe, ash wood. Large sort of open casks, which are going to not necessarily make it super woody, but allow for oxidation. Then it’s sweetened and bottled in this kind of Chianti-style straw wrapped bottle, which thankfully they haven’t changed in a very long time. It’s much closer to kirschwasser, Sweden kirschwasser, than it is to cherry syrup, like cherry heering. It is, the large-format barrel aging kind of mellows it in a way that kirschwasser for some can seem somewhat sharp.
T: Yeah, and talk about that iconic bottle right there with the straw wrapping on it. Also, well, two points to note. Number 1, very tall, so it can present some difficulties. Certainly it has for me at home here trying to fit it somewhere on the shelf. But just another one, I feel like it’s one of those ingredients that if I go into a bar that I’m not familiar with, or maybe in a different city, if I see that somewhere behind the bar and looks like it’s in a place where it’s getting some fairly regular amount of use, I feel like, OK, this is a place where we can try some drinks. Maybe stray from some of the safer options because I think that’s a good signifier right there.
J: I would agree, it’s really a beacon that you sort of look at a bar and you see that bottle, and you’re like, “Oh, these people make kind of classic cocktails.” I think that the… One of the things that’s exciting about Luxardo is it’s a family company. You know Matteo Luxardo runs it currently, it’s multi-generational, it’s still in the family’s hands, they’re out and about and available. They remind me a little bit of the Noninos. They’re sort of old school, and I think that straw-wrapped bottle is something… So many of the brands that we know and love are owned now by large liquor companies, God bless your heart, large liquor companies. But the large liquor companies turn these brands over frequently to different marketing and sales leads who immediately want to make their impact on the brands by repackaging them, changing the names, and sometimes changing the formula slightly. Thankfully Luxardo, being a family company, they’re all about preserving tradition there. It’s a beacon on a back bar that lets you know that the bartenders have a few of these recipes in their back pocket, and probably are more inclined to make them correctly for you.
T: Yeah, and I guess final thought for myself on that, just that, and I say this in a very loving way, just that kind of awkward bottle that’s not very practical, but that’s traditional. It’s very Italian for me just being like, “No, this is our tradition. We’re not going to change this even though it might be helpful for some or some people might clamor for it.” But no, that’s a wonderful one. Final ingredient, as you mentioned, is lime juice. You said it’s a very important component of this drink. Can you tell us about that?
J: Yeah, I’ve been reflecting a lot over the, especially the last few years during the pandemic, about how the so-called cocktail renaissance, like, what spurred it, what kind of drove it? I think that a lot of what we talk about now about why we make these drinks has to do with these old spirits and these sort of loungey, speakeasy, basically bar-oriented elements of what’s driven this thing. I would say that one thing that we haven’t maybe sort of given enough shine to is Dale’s and Tony Abou-Ganim’s early message going back to 2000, which was like, “Hey, we should, we should make these drinks with fresh juices, fresh ingredients, and premium spirits and not sour mix and the bottles that are hidden underneath the bar.” I think that one sort of sad but necessary… and I don’t feel the need to go into it here, but I think that we’ve seen a very sort of rapid re-industrialization of the craft cocktail over the pandemic to sort of save bars, and save bartenders. I think it’s a good thing, and I think that perhaps a lot of the craft cocktail ethos is moving from bars to homes where people are starting to get into this themselves. But I do think that this drink wouldn’t have perhaps made the splash that it made if it was being made with sour mix or super juice or if it was served in a can. I think it was able to shine because it was made with juice, fresh-squeezed lime juice, that was prepared either before service or squeezed à la minute, as they did at Milk & Honey back then. I don’t think we’re talking enough right now about the importance of fresh ingredients in drinks.
T: A hundred percent. Even within that, I guess for this cocktail in particular, something about the profile of lime and its sharpness. I mean, even if you used fresh lemon juice for this, it just wouldn’t be the same cocktail either, right? If you don’t have a lime, you can’t substitute that lemon in there and expect the same results.
J: No, and I think that it is key. When I create drinks, I think a lot about color theory and how different sorts of… When I’m thinking of what to put together, I usually think of colors. I just think of the green lime and green Chartreuse and the sort of green evergreen botanicals of gin, and it just makes sense. I think that fresh lime juice is really important to this drink. The Chartreuse and the Maraschino, the Chartreuse especially, are quite sweet and so you need that bracing acidity and tartness that lime brings. Especially if you’re squeezing with an elbow or something that’s going to get some of the oil into the glass. That oil is going to really, I think, do a lot of interesting things with the complexity of the Maraschino and the green Chartreuse.
T: I think it’s incredible listening to you talk about that. Just thinking about how all of these ingredients are kind of supercharged in their own category. There’s no passengers here. They’re all doing all of the heavy lifting together. Nothing’s kind of lazier than the other, all of them are very, very focused, and yeah, supercharged as I would, as I say there.
J: I agree, and I think that’s why this drink is a really interesting drink and really sort of… A lot of recipes, I think about the Martini, the original Martini, going back to the Turf Club, or some sort of its antecedents was made with like, Old Tom gin, which was sweetened and usually a very… It was literally like an Old Tom Manhattan was the original Martini. Now when we talk about the Martini, we have to also include vodka with no vermouth, and either brine and blue cheese stuffed olives. The delta between the original sort of acts as a placenta to the Martini of either today or somewhat recently, they don’t even share ingredients. Or the Daiquiri, which is a drink that I love, so many people, when you say Daiquiri, think of a frozen Strawberry Daiquiri in a styrofoam cup and that is nothing to do with the sort of Daiquiri that I think about. Whereas when we say Last Word there, we’re thinking gin, lime, green Chartreuse, and Luxardo Maraschino mostly, and it’s like a little mini miracle that it didn’t have to shape-shift like a chameleon to still be sort of talked about today. It’s unusual.
T: The final cocktail has had the Last Word, the original recipe.
How to Make Jim Meehan’s Last Word
T: Which is wonderful. Now I’m going to ask you to explain how you would make this cocktail if you were looking for the ultimate version for it. If you can explain it to us step by step as if we were together here, start to finish, and finish by telling us as well your kind of preferred glassware and garnish for the drink.
J: Yeah, so I mean, I think there’s some modularity to every drink and I think that you either are making the drink for yourself, or you’re making it for a guest. You’re going to use green Chartreuse, you’re going to use Luxardo Maraschino, you’re going to use fresh squeezed lime juice. The one place where there’s room for sort of personalization is the gin. So if I was making this drink for you, I would ask you if you had a gin preference and if you said Fords or Tanqueray or Beefeater, or Bombay, then that’s how I would make it, because I think that it’s very important that we understand that we make drinks for people, not for ourselves, unless we’re making ourselves a drink. I would take that London dry gin, I would make this drink equal parts. I’d probably make it three-quarter, three-quarter, three- quarter, three-quarter, at an ounce of. When you’re talking about an ounce of Green Chartreuse, an ounce of gin, an ounce, it’s just the caloric content and alcoholic content, it’s going to be a lot. That’s going to be night, night time after that. So I’m going to make this drink three-quarters, three quarters, three quarters, three quarters. I’m going to measure those all into a Boston shaker. I’m going to shake it vigorously with a cold draft or large cubes. I’m going to fine strain it probably into a Nick and Nora glass, which I’ve pulled from my freezers and I’m not going to garnish it, I’m going to serve it to you.
T: Fantastic. If you were making that drink for yourself, would that still be Plymouth there that you’re using, as you mentioned earlier, or would you have a different preference today? Or is it just a-
J: Funny, I actually… When I wrote my last book, I forced myself to recipe test, to try every drink with five different spirits to make sure that I represented my favorite so if I go to the manual… I liked this drink, I’m contradicting myself before, with Perry’s Tot navy strength gin.
J: In 2000, that would’ve been my gin of choice. Probably back in around 2014, I would say that my gin of choice, if I didn’t have Perry’s Tot from my friend Allen Katz, would probably be something like Tanqueray.
T: That sounds wonderful. I’ll say this about Perry’s Tot as well, though. It does come in at that strength, but that alcohol is very, very well incorporated. I mean, you don’t smell or taste it, but it’s a punchy gin and it does have that classic profile too.
J: Yeah. Allen Katz is one of my favorite distillers in America, and this was a process when I tested the recipes for the book, I did it all sort of blind. I obviously set up the gins that I thought might work in it, but I let my palate be the guide. Back then Perry’s Tot would’ve led the tasting for me.
T: I think that’s a wonderful lesson too, as well though, that the theory is wonderful, but the final judge should always be the palate.
J: I think on that note, we should understand that we are moving targets as people and that my palate in 2014 is not my palate today. And for that reason, it’s important not only to taste, and to taste in a rigorous way, but it’s important to revisit because what I originally published in the first book is not going to necessarily stick up in the next book. There’s no reason to think that it will be the same today. Tanqueray was my gin in the first book, and then if I were to taste it today, who knows what it would be? I would have to set up a blind tasting.
T: Of course, these are gins that, OK, they do strive for wonderful consistency, but these are fresh ingredients in there. Botanicals, complex recipes. I mean there’s always going to be a slight variation, maybe bottle to bottle, but we’re probably getting a little bit too microscopic there.
J: No, I love it. I think that is the nerdiness that… I mean, I don’t spend a lot of time talking about drinks anymore because I’m really nerdy about drinks and a lot of people… I can see Jeff Morgenthaler’s eyes just rolling deeply into, just almost in his head as he’s listening to me talk about this. Because I think they’re very respectable contemporaries of mine who would view this sort of pedantic, sort of nerdery as just as odious. Whereas for me, it’s like, this is why cocktails are interesting to me. It’s not something that I should shrug off.
T: No, a hundred percent. I think that if I can break the fourth wall here somewhat for a moment, that’s what I love about recording this show is that, not only are these deep dives on drinks, but we get to spend some time with different personalities and different interpretations of making cocktails. There’s no right answer, at the end of the day. It’s just wonderful to always be on the other end of these chats and learn people’s different approaches.
J: I think that’s a great point.
T: Well Jim, any final thoughts here on the Last Word today, before we do move into that next section and of course get to know your own personality as a drinker a little bit more.
J: No, I mean, I’d say my last word on the Last Word is just, I’ve checked out the latest sort of definitive history of the Last Word, and that would’ve been in the “Oxford Companion,”and I was grateful that Sinjin, who I worked with at the Pegu Club, in the first paragraph, or, sorry, the second paragraph, he mentions Murray. I would say that modern bartenders do not make this drink without mentioning Murray Stenson at some point. That’s the last word.
Getting to Know Jim Meehan
T: That’s the last word right there. Or it is for that section, at least, because I am going to hit you with question No. 1 right now, and that would be what style or category typically enjoys the most real estate on your back bar?
J: I am currently the beverage director of a Japanese restaurant in Portland, Ore., and we are basically featuring, it’s a sort of new take on running a Japanese restaurant where I’m running it as a Japanese person would as opposed to just trying to import as much stuff as I can from Japan and masquerading as a Japanese restaurant in Portland. We are featuring as many of the great local distilled spirits in Portland, in the Pacific Northwest, as possible. If you come to my bar today, you will see a lot of interesting whiskeys, gins, vodkas, and all sorts of stuff that mainly is distilled in Oregon that we think is really interesting and special.
T: Nice. Yeah, some great craft distillation going on up there for sure. Beyond just the things you think of those whiskeys too, I’ve had a couple there. Wonderful. Question No. 2: Which ingredient or tool do you believe to be the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
J: I would say the jigger, I would say that… It was funny, I was looking at RedTipBarSpoon, the sort of deadpan spoof Instagram account, and it was talking about jiggering or something recently. But I think that the jigger is something that… It’s a useful tool. I love it. It’s important. Use it.
T: And very apt for this drink too, by the way. I do not want someone free-pouring the ingredients for my Last Word. This is one that we’ve spoken about, needs to be equal proportions and it works.
J: Yeah, I would agree. I think when you’re talking about especially lesser pours of a quarter, and half, and three- quarter. The one thing that surprised me a lot when I go to bars now is a lot of young bartenders work with only one jigger, a 1- and 2-ounce, and they eyeball the half-quarter and three-quarter measurements. Cocktail Kingdom and others make a half-ounce, three-quarter-ounce jigger, and I would argue that jigger is your friend and you should put it next to the 1-2 and use it.
T: Yeah, and I mean it does require some dexterity there if you’re trying to use both at the same time, but I’ve seen some folks do some wonderful work with those.
T: Question No. 3 then. What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received while working in this industry?
J: I had a rough day at a restaurant in New York, and part of my rough day stemmed from rough treatment from the kitchen staff at that restaurant. One of the roughest of that kitchen staff, when he saw me really sort of struggling with the roughness of that day, pulled me aside and ironically told me, but thankfully told me, that the most important thing in this industry is to not burn any bridges. He said it from a place of love, he was a very tough person. And while I can’t say that I’ve live a burn-bridge-free career — there are unfortunately some broken bridges in smoldering rooms throughout my career — I would say that is the most valuable piece of advice I’ve ever been given. We work in the relationship business, and the way that you treat people, no matter what station, whether they’re your boss or whether they’re the new person, is everything. People will never forget. Your coworkers will never forget the way you treated them, especially when you had power or influence. I find that I’m glad I got that piece of advice in my career when I did. I’ve always kept it close, I’ve always kicked myself when I could have done a better job with it. But it is the most important bit of advice I’ve ever been given. And I think it holds true today more than ever.
T: A hundred percent. Question No 4 here, the penultimate one. If you could only visit one last bar in your life, what would it be?
J: I loved Bar RADIO in Tokyo. It’s definitely, I think, my favorite bar on Earth, and so if I could only go to one more bar in my life, I probably would go back to Bar RADIO. I really thought that was a special place for me.
T: Final question here for you. If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make?
J: Back in the day, when I was footloose and fancy free at PDT, I used to make myself Champs-Élysée with Frapin XO and Chartreuse VEP, or I used to make myself Tea Punches with Neisson Reserve Speciale. I would say that I think if I was going out, I think it would be that Champs-Élysée with the Frapin and the Chartreuse VEP, then I think that’s a good connection to the Last Word. I do have a fondness for Chartreuse in my life.
T: Nice, a good way to go. Good way to go out if that is indeed to be the end. And also, I’m pretty sure the first time that cocktail was featured for this question, so thanks for sharing that one.
J: Of course.
T: Jim, thank you so much as well for joining us today. I did lie, actually. I’m going to add one more question here for you, a bonus one, and you haven’t been able to prepare for this, so I’m sorry. But I want you to have the last word on today’s show by sharing with us your favorite word.
J: My favorite word is “curiosity.” I think curiosity is a gift and is a gift that keeps on giving for those of us who are lucky enough to possess it.
T: Wonderful. Can I just say as well, that’s tough there, coming up with a favorite word? I’ve been asked it before, I’ve thought about it before, but it’s very hard to settle upon. That’s a great sentiment that you just came up with there on the fly, so probably means that it’s even more true as well.
J: Yeah. I think that being curious is the key to a fruitful life. People sometimes tell me they’re bored. I look at them like they have 10 heads. I have so much to do, I don’t have enough hours in the day. I’m running, my mind’s running a hundred… I can’t imagine being bored. And I think it’s just because I’m curious.
T: Speaking of words, by the way, that is a word that was banned in my household growing up. We were told, “You have so much stuff. There is no way that you can be bored.” Yeah, that’s a good one. All right, then, well let’s head out there now and make ourselves some Last Words, and yeah, thanks again.
J: Yeah, thank you for having me on this show. This was fun.
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