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The Last Word – Prohibition-era cocktail that’s a Hong Kong after

Some classic cocktails have a loyal following that never deserts them. The Dry Martini may go in and out of fashion, but it has never gone out of style.

Others have enjoyed a period of popularity before disappearing for decades, to be rediscovered this century by bartenders who like to pore over old cocktail recipe books. One example of this is The Last Word, which celebrates its centenary this year.

The first record of the drink is to be found on a 1916 drinks list of the Detroit Athletic Club in Detroit, Michigan, and like many others it became popular during the Prohibition era because it could be made with bathtub gin.

The other ingredients are fresh lime juice, maraschino liqueur and green Chartreuse.

The Last Word seems to have fallen out of favour at some point after the Prohibition years, and is little documented, but the recipe is recorded in Bottoms Up, a 1951 cocktail book by Ted Saucier who worked at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York.

“This cocktail was introduced around here about 30 years ago by Frank Fogarty, who was very well known in vaudeville. He was called the ‘Dublin Minstrel,’ and was a very fine monologue artist,” wrote Saucier.

One explanation for the cocktail’s name is that it is an allusion to the monologue with which Fogarty closed his act. It is possible that the cocktail was created at the club and named after him. In 1916 he was apparently performing at Detroit’s Shrine Theatre.

Saucier’s book is regarded by many modern mixologists as one of the bartending trade’s classic texts. It was republished in facsimile in 2011 complete with what – in the 1950s – were regarded as some somewhat risqué illustrations.

Before that, however, an old copy of the book came into the possession of popular Seattle bartender Murray Stenson, then of the Zig Zag Café. Stenson was intrigued by the recipe, which many bartenders regard as an unlikely combination of ingredients which somehow happens to work.

It was a success at the Zig Zag Café, and word spread. The drink became known within the trade as good formula with which to surprise the jaded palates of customers asking for something a bit different.

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Modern versions of The Last Word tend to miss out the sugar which Saucier’s recipe calls for, and bartenders can put their individual stamp on the drink through their choice of gin. Saucier specifies Damrak gin, a Dutch spirit with a recipe which dates back to the 1700s and is based on 17 botanicals. It has a citrusy, herbal character.

When the bar of Morton’s The Steakhouse in Tsim Sha Tsui revised its drinks list recently it added The Last Word as an after dinner cocktail, with the cautionary admonition “One is enough”.

“We try to encourage people to have an after-dinner drink, and to look at cocktails rather than just shots. It’s not a very well-known cocktail, but people do try it. I like the herbal flavour it has – it’s nice as a palate cleanser,” says Morton’s general manager Simon Graham – a keen mixologist himself.

“We use one part freshly squeezed lime juice, one part Hendricks gin, one part Luxardo maraschino liqueur and one part green Chartreuse. The Hendricks adds some extra character,” he says.

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For anybody who doesn’t care for the distinctive cucumber and rose petal character of Hendricks, there is no shortage of other gins that can stand in for it.

Graham suggests choosing a gin with a sharp herbal character.

The man in charge of the drinks offerings at all Morton’s outlets worldwide is Tylor Field, vice-president of wines and spirits at Morton’s in Chicago. He introduced Morton’s biggest variation on the recipe as recorded by Saucier, which calls for The Last Word to be shaken.

“The biggest mistake you can make is to shake it,” he insists. “Our recipe calls for it to be a stirred cocktail. The shaking takes away the depth of the drink and does not give enough dilution, which the drink needs – like a good whisky with a drop of water. It counteracts the high proof Chartreuse, and softens the gin as well.”

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Field, who introduced the cocktail to Morton’s outlets in North America last year, says his version is true to the Saucier formula in its use of equal parts of each ingredient, but adds that back in The Last Word’s Prohibition heyday, it would probably have been a smaller drink.

Martini-style cocktail glasses, in which The Last Word is traditionally served with a twist of lime peel as a garnish, were less generously proportioned then than now.

“Classic and pre-Prohibition cocktails are all the rage in America right now, as well as other parts of the world,” says Field. “It also fills a void in cocktail service. With the decline in demand for after-dinner cognacs, ports and so on there is a need for an end-of-night cocktail for the guest.”

With the sharp acidity of the lime, The Last Word seems to me more of an aperitif style cocktail than a digestif, but it certainly does leave the mouth tasting fresh.

Either way it contains a lot of alcohol, and one is indeed probably enough.

Other places that serve a version of the drink worth trying include Artesian at The Langham where it features on the classics list, and Ori.Gin, both of which also stick closely to the classic recipe, and offer a choice of gins.

Three places you can drink The Last Word in Hong Kong

Morton’s The Steakhouse, 4/F The Sheraton Hotel and Towers, 20 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2732 2343

Artesian, The Langham, 8 Peking Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2132 7898

Ori.Gin, 48 Wyndham Street, Central, tel: 2668 5583

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