“I will have a Smokey Word,” said the mid-thirty-something-ish man in the stocking cap rubbing his hands together.
“Me too,” replied his comparably aged female companion in a printed tie dye halter top.
The Smokey Word is a variation on the Last Word cocktail: gin, maraschino liqueur, green chartreuse, and lime juice, but substituting mezcal for the gin. I mixed the drink as I have come to know it, adjusting the proportions slightly to accommodate for the added smokiness of the mezcal.
“Traditionally, isn’t it supposed to be equal parts?” asked Ms. Halter.
“Traditionally?” I asked looking at the variant they had just ordered.
“I mean an original Last Word is made with equal parts, right?” asked her companion.
Traditional and “original” are always a slippery slope. A “traditional” martini these days is nothing like an “original” 1850’s martini, nor is it like a Prohibition martini, or a 1950s version, or a 60s version or even a 70s version. Traditional is relative to the person in question.
And when it comes to original, one must always be skeptical. Let’s look at the Last Word cocktail. It first appeared in print in 1951, in the vaguely misogynistic Ted Saucier book, “Bottoms Up.” His adolescent double entendre not being all that subtle, certainly not if one looks at the illustrations. In it, Saucier claims the drink to be a Prohibition staple at the Detroit Athletic Club, appearing on menus going all the way back to 1916. The “Last Word” then doesn’t appear again in print, at least, until the early 2000s. Spearheaded by its inclusion on a cocktail menu at the Seattle bar called the Zig Zag Café – the recipe which was admittedly lifted from Saucier’s book – the Last Word has seen an explosion in popularity leading to derivatives using everything from whiskey, to mezcal, to Fernet Branca.
There are a couple of things to remember about that original time frame. 1) Prohibition didn’t start until 1919 (and it lasted until 1933) and 2) The Carthusians (who make Chartreuse) had been expelled from their monastery/distillery in 1903 by the French government (moving to Tarragona Spain), and by 1929, the order had filed for bankruptcy, specifically due to poor sales. It wasn’t until 1935 when they began production again, in France.
Today Chartreuse is a $30 million global enterprise. The monks make three products: Green Chartreuse, Yellow Chartreuse, and a special aged version called VEP (which is an abbreviation for the French: “exceptionally prolonged aging”). There are also three other versions that are very small production and are very hard to find.
There does seem to be a widely reported shortage of Green Chartreuse specifically, and I blame that on the newfound popularity of the Last Word and its derivatives. Green Chartreuse is a steep hill to climb flavor wise. It has a strong vegetal quality as well as a pronounced sweetness. It is also 110 proof, or 55% pure ethyl alcohol. And to think, it was considered an “elixir of long life” by the original monks who created it specifically for “health” reasons.
We have seen in recent years how American popularity can wipe out a 100 year old product in a very short while. Just look at aged Japanese whiskey which has virtually disappeared from shelves. 100 years of existence gone in half a decade. Can Chartreuse be far behind?
“I think you put in too much lime juice,” said my modern day traditionalist.
Funny she chose that specific ingredient. Limes are not as exact as one might suspect. The most common modern lime is the Persian lime, which is a hybrid of a Key lime (or Mexican lime) and a lemon, and wasn’t nearly as widespread in the early part of the last century as it is now. So, the very first question one would have to ask a 1916 or a 1951 bartender (or a 2023 traditionalist) is; What kind of lime are we talking about? Because it does matter. Key limes are quite tart when green, and when fully ripe (yellow) they are abrasively bitter. Persian limes on the other hand, are tart when green, and then quite sweet when they ripen to yellow. So not only is how much lime important. But so is “what” lime, and “when” was that lime picked.
On Ms. Halter’s second “Smokey Word” the traditionalist asked me to halve the amount of Maraschino liqueur, throwing off my proportions, not to mention the original ones, even more.
“That’s so much better,” she said.
Leaving me with these thoughts:
-“He who moves not forward, goes backward,” once wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
-The main Carthusian monastery has twice been wiped out by so-called “acts of god.” An avalanche in 1132, and a mudslide in 1935. Just a thought.
-Can a recent derivative of a drink that’s really only been popular for 20 years be called traditional? Asking for a friend.
-Sometimes we cling to tradition because it is easier than thinking for ourselves.