My husband likes his martini–gin, of course–very dry, vermouth barely tainting the juniper. I like vermouth just fine, and prefer a more generous splash with my gin. Our friend fancies vodka–horrors!–over gin and refuses to allow vermouth even to kiss its partner. We argue over what, if any, garnish is best, whether to stir or shake, but we all agree glass and liquor must be icy cold.

With all this obsessive fussing over one of the simplest mixed drinks, it’s no wonder that bartenders are mutating into mixologists and bars into alchemists’ laboratories. The national obsession with food has naturally extended to what we drink when we eat–and when we’re not eating–settling first on wines, then artisanal beers, and now craft liquors and cocktails. Just as restaurants are no longer simply purveyors of meals slung by unknown chefs, many watering holes now offer much more than a place to drown sorrows, pick up dates, and play pool–specifically, well-selected and well-crafted libations made with premium alcohol, fresh juices and mixers, and artisanal or house-made bitters, garnishes, and seasonal flavorings. All this, and the ambiance should be appropriately chic or clubby. In Ann Arbor, one such place is the Last Word.

Downstairs from LIVE on First Avenue, with its entrance around the corner on Huron, the Last Word is named after a cocktail created at the Detroit Athletic Club in 1921. Descending the stairs into the room, one rounds the corner to sit at a short bar or moves farther into the space to choose a table. Large, comfortable booths line one wall; pictures in gilded frames blanket another. Menus come inserted between the covers of faded, cloth-lined books. The decor hints at the libraries of grand estates or the lounges of venerable old hotels. The quartet of owners–Robbie Schulz, Paul Drennan, Adam Lowenstein, and Justin Herrick–encourage sipping and lingering and civilized conversation; during busy times a doorman prevents entry to new parties if seats are unavailable. A multi-page menu that includes a glossary, beers and wines, whiskeys, and cocktails–the latter sorted into “lighter,” “stronger,” and “nightcaps”–indicates what the business is all about. A separate sheet of nibbles and changing small plates, many substantial enough for a meal, concocted by chef Scott MacInnis, offers possibilities for staving off hunger and inebriation.

My husband and I had enjoyed a drink or two with friends at the Last Word, but we’d never fully explored these two menus. In late summer, before the school crowds returned, we went in a few times to do just that. My husband’s taste in cocktails tends to be fairly straightforward–martinis, scotch and water, the very occasional gin and tonic. Wanting to venture further afield, he asked bartender Giancarlo Aversa for a suggestion. After a bit of back and forth–nothing too sweet or fruity, no vodka–Aversa proposed the Hanky Panky. (Booze-addled youths, from this century and the last, have burdened many cocktails with silly names.) Not listed on the menu, but a favorite of Aversa’s, the mix of gin, red vermouth, and Fernet Branca, an Italian digestive, was herbal, bitter, and spirited–a good introduction into mixology’s complexities. Choosing a printed suggestion–Dr. Ordinaire–rewarded me with a gin, absinthe, and lime concoction that was lightly licorice-y, very citrusy, and quite refreshing. My second choice, the Pro Whale, was an inspired combination of aged, blended rum, falernum–a sweet almond and spice-scented syrup–and chocolate bitters, with a backdrop of orange zest and brandied cherries.

I was beginning to feel real hunger pangs and an immediate need for salty, fried food. Like its cocktail list, the Last Word’s food menu is pleasingly out of the ordinary. Bar snacks include tasty peanuts dusted with curry and lime and addictive fried chickpeas, spiced and salted. There are also charcuterie and cheese options, but we decided to start with everyone’s favorite–French fries. Presented in three cups, one sprinkled simply with sea salt, another with fennel pollen, the third with paprika, the fries were crispy, hot, and delicious, even if the flavorings didn’t always come through strongly. An unfortunate interlude followed with the delivery of lemongrass chicken dumplings, insipid, dry semicircles redeemed only by their spicy tamari dipping sauce. But our meal of small plates continued happily with merguez sliders, absolutely wonderful North African-inspired mini lamb burgers with crunchy slaw and mint yogurt. While the sliders were my favorite, my husband enthusiastically devoured the citrus chipotle tacos, corn tortillas heaped with savory braised pork shoulder, pico de gallo, and lime creme fraiche.

For dessert, we ordered the beignets, a trio of warm pastry fritters blanketed with powdered sugar and salted caramel sauce–an enormous but tantalizing portion. To accompany them, we chose the bar’s eponymous drink, a blend of gin, green Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur, and lime juice. While it was sweet, the botanical quality of the gin and Chartreuse kept it from being cloying. Though coffee might have been a more fitting partner to the beignets, the cocktail was a wonderful dessert on its own.

The next time we went, my husband decided to start with his usual martini, but asked Andy Sienkiewicz, that evening’s barkeep, to pick the gin. At 57 percent alcohol–navy strength, or flammable–Hayman’s Royal Dock has “more bottom end,” as Andy put it, and we agreed it made a wonderful martini. I also enjoyed a well-crafted version of another cocktail originating from early in the last century, the Corpse Reviver #2, which shook together gin, Cointreau, Lillet, lemon juice, and a dash of absinthe. The artisanal brandied cherry resting at the bottom of the glass–made, we were told, by a “friend of the bar”–was a notable garnish.

It was a Tuesday night, so the bar was offering “a beer and a bump” for five bucks: any Michigan beer paired with a shot of a limited selection from the extensive whiskey list. (They’d lose a bundle if they offered any whiskey–the twenty-five-year-old Macallan is $130 for a 2-ounce “sip.”) Partial to beer, my husband opted for the offer after he finished his martini. When I complained I’d never been able to develop a taste for whiskeys, Sienkiewicz gave me a sample of Bastille 1789, a French whiskey he claimed many wine drinkers enjoy. (One of the perks of sitting at this bar is the potential for education.) Indeed, I found it smoother, sweeter, and mellower than other whiskeys I’ve tried. But since I was hungry, I decided to continue with wine, the beverage I find best with food.

That evening, we ordered empanadas. Stuffed with ground pork seasoned with aji amarillo (a Peruvian chili), oregano, and garlic, the three miniature turnovers were garnished with cumin-lime yogurt. From flaky, golden crusts to piquant filling and zesty sauce, these little pies were perfect. Salmon cakes, on the other hand, were not, the patties nearly flavorless underneath their crispy Panko crust and heap of micro greens. We also found the puerco cubano, or Cuban pork sandwich, not as tasty as we had hoped, the lightly layered braised pork, prosciutto, Comte cheese, and pickle filling insufficient for the dry, overly dense house-made bread. For dessert, I returned to the cocktail menu, ordering a Wynwood–aromatic, nutty Rhum Barbancourt mixed into a frothy, well-balanced, grown-up milkshake with RumChata, a creamy cinnamon-scented rum liqueur, lime juice, egg whites, and Angostura bitters.

Our final visit was after a long, exhausting day that had extended late into the evening. It was actually near midnight, and I, at least, needed most to sit down. I ordered a Dr. Ordinaire, and as I slowly sipped it, I felt the warmth of the gin and absinthe seep into my veins and reanimate my muscles. My husband chose a simple absinthe–the bar has many–and we watched the ritualized preparation, ice water dripping from a special fountain, gradually dissolving the sugar cube resting over the glass, clouding the clear liqueur. Nothing happens quickly at the Last Word–not cocktails, not food, not service, particularly on a busy night. Don’t go when you need to knock back a quick one or when you’re in a hurry. Do go, though, when you’ve time to savor the ceremonies and delights of bar and kitchen, an intimate conversation, or shared revelations. You’ll be happy you lingered.

The Last Word

301 W. Huron Street


Bar hours: Tues.-Sat. 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Kitchen hours: Tues.-Thurs. 5 p.m.-midnight, Fri. & Sat. 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Closed Sun. & Mon.

Beers $3-$18, wines by the glass $6-$14, whiskeys, 1 oz. tastings $3-$82, 2 oz. sips $5-$130, cocktails $9, snacks and small plates $4-$25. Green (happy) hour 5-7 p.m., 25 percent off all food and drink.