It was a brisk winter night: I was running across a dimly-lit parking lot on the corner of Ashley and Huron. Hobbling past the large group of fellow goer-outers, I leapt over the concrete divide and saw the rest of my party dart into an invisible doorway on the side of an unmarked building. Where the hell are we going? I caught up, scuttling down the street in heels half a size too big. On top of a building, a black and white letter board haphazardly spelling “THE LAST WORD 5 P.M. – 2 A.M.” caught my eye. I ducked into the dimly lit door frame beneath the sign.
In an instant, I had fallen down Ann Arbor’s very own rabbit hole, an underground hotbed of mixology magic and handcrafted cocktails. After wiping the sweat off my brow and readjusting my various layers, I found myself face-to-face with a gentleman clad in a white dress shirt, orchestrating the evening next to a sign that read “Please wait to be seated” in dark, scripted letters. Paneled bookshelves lined the walls as we weaved our way through elderly couples and youths, nestled in the dark corner booths, all ages sporting beards — so many beards. Tea lights flickered against the wood-paneled walls, shining on finely aged liquids in tall-necked glasses. It was as if the buck-young Ann Arbor had finally been wrangled by a man she met at a rare book store, moved into a chic loft overlooking the meatpacking district of Manhattan, and now roamed the streets clad in sleek cargo trousers and patterned sweaters that merely hinted at her wild youth.
As expected of such a refined lady of rebellion, the menu was leather bound and resembled a short novel more than a list of food and beverage offerings. After making my way through the Table of Contents (chapter listings and glossary included), I flipped through page after page of exotic cocktails, trying my best to think if the bold combination of brandied cherry juice and Aztec chocolate bitters would pique my taste buds more than the somewhat smoother elixir of gin and champagne. One of my companions, however, was still on the fence, wondering whether to get the unconventional and zesty Osborn with fresh jalapeno or the Penicillin that was up to its eyeballs in Scotch. I expected an all too excited regurgitation of “They’re both great!” from our waiter, as per the unwritten rules of customer service. To my surprise, however, she looked up from her notepad and explained that while the Penicillin was certainly satisfactory, it was truly the Osborn’s perfect balance of bite and sweetness that made it her drink of choice.
With smiles on our faces and eager anticipation for our dangerously delicious cocktails, we delved into a world of culinary accomplices that have forever been engrained in my memory — also known as appetizers. What arrived were more or less fancy open-faced grilled cheeses topped with fresh herbs. It wasn’t long before the app from heaven was gone, both melting and breaking my heart with its fleeting fickleness — much like a childhood friendship kindled in the stale heat of a summer camp Rec Room. I was overwhelmingly struck with a feeling of love and loss as I gritted my teeth and politely offered the last bite away. #regret
It seemed like the Last Word could do no better, until our drinks arrived. A lone thread of salty Parmesan hanging from my lower lip, my jaw slacked mid-bite; I looked up at the waitress as she bestowed upon us our cocktails. Mine: a tall, glowing glass of gin and champagne, a single basil leaf adorning the rim. And my companion’s: a short stub of a Tiki mug sprouting a blue paper umbrella. My eyes widened and I chuckled to myself. It seemed the impossible became possible — both the luxury of aged alcohol and the candid kitschy-ness of a tourist souvenir came to coexist.
Just when you thought you had the Last Word figured out, just when you thought you had her all boxed up and tucked neatly away, she shook her finger with a mischievous smile, giving you a “Tsk, tsk” for trying to tie her down as solely lavish. In one fell swoop, we were reminded that there was no room for judgment, for wondering if Tiki mugs should or shouldn’t be served in an otherwise luau-less environment. This was more than just a drink, more than just a night out on the town — it was a chance to indulge in liquid peppers, to huddle around a flaming bowl of “lots of rum … and more rum.” It was a chance to break all the rules — at least until last call.