The Last Word is a classic cocktail — reportedly first served in the Detroit Athletic Club in the 1910s — made of equal parts gin, lime juice, Maraschino liqueur and green Chartreuse. It’s also a secret bar in Ann Arbor’s Old West Side, accessed through an unmarked door on Huron Street. Though it’s mostly publicized through word of mouth, the elusive nature of the place isn’t an obstacle in attracting clientele. On a Wednesday night, the bartender is shaking drinks like maracas for a full house.
The interior of the bar is as classic as its signature cocktail: from my table, darkly stained wood paneling and squishy leather booths are barely discernable in the dusky room. The booths seem perfect for a clandestine rendezvous with an older man, maybe a professor. Instead, I’m with two of my friends who clean up even better than I do. I order, as if I have a choice, The Last Word. My friends both request Kissed By A Rose, cocktails that arrive as tiny pink potions capped with foam, and sprinkled with actual potpourri. My drink is everything I hate in a beverage: citrusy, and with more swiftly disintegrating ice shards than the North Pole. It is served straight-up with a lime, and is the kind easily paired with a little black dress and heels. I’m in fact wearing both, trying to compensate for how young the setting makes me feel.
Stacked among the drink menus, completing the impression of having a drink with 007, are ultimately decorative hardcover books. The string lights from above are set so dim they appear untethered — a constellation hovering above the gloom. Because we are so visible while the rest of the bar is not, we feel exposed, like being onstage in front of a rudely inattentive audience.
The darkness fogs the gray walls to a pale green, and is at once comforting and sinister: While it ensures privacy, the only way you’d recognize the other patrons is if you already knew they were there. It’s a place where you feel like you should be whispering — the building is styled as a speakeasy — but you’re probably shouting over your table. The cacophony of voices somehow affirms the intimacy of the setting, as you can’t hear anyone but your tablemates. The atmosphere invites confidence, and like emotional ipecac it forces patrons into spill-your-guts meaningful conversation. The crowd appears to be mostly couples or old friends, leaning close to hear each other, brushing shoulders or thighs. This isn’t a first-date kind of place; we’re surrounded by people who’ve already seen each other in the dark.
Instead of dessert, we split an order of Thai poutine (braised beef, coconut red curry, cheese curds and fried basil) and beef sliders (caramelized shallot, gruyere and Dijon) that are so delicious I’m insulted by how affordable they are, even with my limited budget. I am swiftly outclassed by my friend, who, after consulting the menu for five minutes says: “We can get a salted caramel beignet!” Though we’ve taken the same amount of French, I still need her to explain that it’s “basically a donut.” Later I order whiskey, because it’s half-priced, and I describe my desired brand as “the cheapest you’ve got.”
When a waiter comes to whisk away my empty cocktail glass, I quiz him about the concept of The Last Word. He characterizes the drink as a collection of strong components that don’t make a lot of sense on paper. Gin overpowers any cocktail it’s party to, same with Maraschino and Chartreuse. But for some reason, it works.
While I can say it’s not my favorite drink, The Last Word as an establishment balances a variety of flavors with finesse and aplomb. The waiter provided a made-to-order metaphor for the place: a strategically blended cocktail of theoretically clashing themes. It’s equal parts Prohibition-era watering hole, part whiskey bar, part townie bar, part date-night destination — themes so strong they shouldn’t complement one another. But five nights a week, The Last Word shakes and serves.