Turning toward the bar, the gentleman to my left instructed the bartender, “Make him that drink you made me last night.” A few minutes later, I was sipping on a clever concoction of coconut, rum, and a hint of Laphroig. This contemporary take on a tiki drink was the delicious brainchild of Giancarlo Aversa, a bartender at what has arguably become Ann Arbor’s best spot for cocktails, The Last Word.
Open since February 14, 2012 and named after the classic drink that originated at the Detroit Athletic Club in the 1920’s, the bar occupies the space previously inhabited by Goodnight Gracie’s lounge near the corner of Huron and 1st Street. Gone are Gracie’s plush lounge sofas and garish faux-tinis. Instead, The Last Word presents a simple but elegant, dimly lit room and libations inspired by the Prohibition era.
My drinking companion that night was co-owner Paul Drennan, a veteran of the bar and restaurant business for more than two decades. “I’ve always had a passion for booze,” he says, which explains in part how a Scottish-born chef finds himself overseeing a cocktail bar and the adjoining music club, Live!
After a culinary career that saw him working in Michelin-starred institutions and took him around the globe, Drennan discovered that the kitchen wasn’t necessarily the place for him.
“Working in those environments, I took a lot from it, but it made me recognize I’d rather be in the front of the house,” he discloses. He came to work for a large hotel and hospitality organization, a career which took him to Ypsilanti in 1999 where he grew fond of the region. After another stint in New York, he ended up working at the MGM casino in Detroit opening the first iteration of those restaurants.
He and his colleague Robbie Schulz left the hotel to bring their expertise to the Alley Bar. They took their shared love of craft cocktails to what is now Ann Arbor’s favorite dive, offering mixed drinks alongside plenty of PBR. But they still longed to do something grander.
With the success of the Alley Bar, Drennan and Schulz entered the fold as partners when the Alley Bar ownership later took over Live! and the old Gracie’s space. The latter became The Last Word and gave them a chance to exercise their creativity and put great drinks to the fore.
It’s not necessarily uncommon to hear a former chef speak frequently about drinking. But it might be a bit less common to sense a true passion for the subject of spirits. Drennan traces it back first to his father introducing him to Scotch and later to a drink he had at the Ritz in London, “It was 1984, 85, I think. A bartender who was old school made me this gin fizz.” Almost three decades later, his bartenders are putting together entirely new cocktails, unquestionably among the best in town.
Creativity – the kind that Drennan and Schulz are encouraging – is critical to The Last Word’s early success. Schulz has developed many of the recipes himself, but all the bartenders are part of the process. “We believe the bartenders need to buy into the place. So they came up with the original menu,” Drennan says.
The menus are cleverly presented in small binders made from the covers of old hardback books and organized from lightest to biggest and most complex. Drennan and Aversa note the popularity of drinks across the entire cocktail list. Among the most requested to this point are, a Lavender Sidecar ($8), the Sangre de Fresa ($9), a refreshing mix of cachaca, Cointreau, lime, strawberry, basil, and balsamic, and the vodka- and rum-based Barbary Flip ($9).
Eventually, they’re hoping to employ a seasonal approach to the menu, changing drinks more frequently and exposing people to more options and more ideas. For the time being, they’re taking their role as educators seriously. Between shaking drinks, Aversa chimes in, “We do a lot of talking with our guests, a lot of brainpicking. Asking people what they’ve had before.”
Beyond interactions at the bar, Drennan and company have begun to add promotional evenings – half off whiskey on Tuesdays and tiki nights on Wednesdays – to their offerings both in the hopes of adding business on off nights and allowing people to experiment more.
Drennan adds that the clientele is constantly surprising them, helping the bar evolve, “You get the most unassuming people with a wealth of knowledge walk through the door, and you’re saying ‘Holy shit, where did you come from?’”
That only supports a notion about which Drennan is adamant – that Ann Arbor now has a vibrant cocktail scene, one that he’s particularly excited about. “We talk up Raven’s Club. We talk up Mani’s. Because everyone improves, and it improves the landscape of Ann Arbor,” he says, “I just want people to recognize Ann Arbor and really the whole state of Michigan. There’s a whole scene here now.”
What he doesn’t say is that The Last Word is a critical piece of that scene. Only a few months into doing business, cocktail aficionados have recognized it as the best of the downtown area cocktail outlets. For anyone in Ann Arbor looking for a good drink, it’s worth a visit.
Finding the bar isn’t hard if you know where to look – it’s tucked under Live!, around the corner on Huron, west of Main Street – though The Last Word doesn’t have a sign or a website yet. Drennan insists this isn’t part of any guerilla marketing effort as some have speculated online. It’s merely a reality of trying to get the bar open as quickly as possible and focusing on the building and the drinks before the marketing: “We’re not aiming to be a speakeasy – just a bar that makes great fucking cocktails.”Share: