Game Changers

Zig Zag's the Last Word: An Oral History

How a little bar called Zig Zag Cafe and a guy named Murray Stenson helped instigate the nation’s cocktail renaissance.

By Allecia Vermillion December 1, 2014 Published in the December 2014 issue of Seattle Met

The Man and His Drink. These days Stenson tends bar at the Queen City Grill in Belltown.

Image: Kyle Johnson

The year: 2003
. The state of cocktails in Seattle and beyond: Sweet concoctions that made liberal use of the suffix -tini. But in a very few places around the country, an appreciation was dawning for a bygone era. For drinks that relied on balance rather than frills, freshly juiced citrus rather than Red Bull and fruity vodka. 

Zig Zag Cafe owners Ben Dougherty and Kacy Fitch built both a mecca and an institute of learning on the Pike Hillclimb, extolling the pleasures of cocktails that predated Prohibition. When eminent bartender Murray Stenson joined them, he rediscovered an unlikely green drink created by a vaudeville singer in Detroit in the 1920s. Here’s how it became Seattle’s equally unlikely signature cocktail and helped the entire nation usher in a new era of vintage drinking.

In 2002, Zig Zag Cafe’s bar managers become owners.

Ben Dougherty (Co-owner, Zig Zag Cafe) We actually got started back in 1999; we bought out the previous owners two and a half years later. 

Robert Hess (Cocktail historian, author, cofounder of the Museum of the American Cocktail)   This new bar was opening up down at Pike Place Market and the bartenders were folks that could make any of the craft cocktails. 

Murray Stenson (Bartending Legend)   I had been working down at Il Bistro and I met Ben and Kacy. They wanted to focus on classic cocktails. 

Ben Dougherty   The Internet was really starting to get moving. It was all word of mouth. You got all these computer guys typing away, talking about it. 

Murray Stenson   Ben and Kacy were right there at the beginning of the whole cocktail resurgence. I mean their timing was impeccable.

Robert Hess   It basically put Seattle on the map from a cocktail standpoint.

Ryan Magarian (Cofounder of Portland’s Aviation American Gin and Oven and Shaker restaurant)   Back in ’03 and ’04, you really don’t have that much. Nationwide there couldn’t have been more than, like, 12 what we call quality craft bars in the country.

Robert Hess   Prior to the Last Word, one of Zig Zag’s signature drinks was the Aviation, which also was an old drink and extremely similar to the Last Word. Last Word is like a variation on the Aviation.

An obscure old book filled  with naked drawings yields an unlikely recipe.

Murray Stenson  
There was a new bar that opened up in Pioneer Square that replicated Zig Zag’s menu. It wasn’t a real important bar—kind a fly-by-night type of thing. I went to Ben and Kacy and I said, “You’ve got to give the bar an identity. You guys have some special liqueurs and liquors here that no one else has. Why not focus on that?”

Ben Dougherty   We kind of pored over these old cocktail books and looked for things that might be interesting to put on the menu.

Murray Stenson   I’ve always been a pack rat, and I had a lot of the old cocktail books. A gentleman named Ted Saucier wrote a cocktail book, Bottoms Up, in 1951, I think. [Saucier credits a vaudeville singer named Frank Fogarty for introducing the drink to the Detroit Athletic Club. —The Editors] Great recipes, illustrated with little nymphs, like in old Playboys. It’s the only book that I’ve ever seen that had that recipe for the Last Word. 

Ben Dougherty   It was a catchy name and it was pretty easy to make: equal parts gin, chartreuse, maraschino liqueur, and lime juice. People screw up margaritas way more than they screw up the Last Word.

Murray Stenson   It’s an odd-sounding drink anyway. On paper it just sounds like it’s not going to work. At that time there weren’t that many bars that carried green chartreuse and almost nobody carried maraschino. These were exotic ingredients that most people didn’t know anything about. 

Robert Hess   Prior to 2004 maraschino liqueur was extremely hard to find. 

Murray Stenson   And it included gin. A lot of people just don’t like gin.

The Last Word makes its first appearance in 2003.

Robert Hess  
I went down to Zig Zag one day. I can’t remember if it was Ben or Murray; it might have been Ben who said, “Hey here is a great cocktail that we’re trying to serve now. Go ahead and give it a try.” And he gave me a Last Word. And I said, “My god that is amazing.”

Ryan Magarian   If you were a person interested in cocktails, you went and saw Murray. I was always game to try anything he wanted to give me.

Ben Dougherty   It was a little bit esoteric, but approachable.

Murray Stenson   We sold the heck out of it.

Robert Hess   The Last Word became Zig Zag’s signature drink. People traveled to Seattle from other places and gave it a try and said, “That’s a great drink.” Then they’d hear the story about how it’s in fact a fairly old drink. 

Good drinks travel fast.

Murray Stenson   A guy named Ryan Magarian moved up here from Portland and opened up the bar at Restaurant Zoë in Belltown. He was the drink guy for Kathy Casey and was doing a lot of national traveling. He tried the drink at the Zig Zag and promoted it back in New York. Then from New York it caught on down in San Francisco and then went to London. It went viral.

Ryan Magarian   I can corroborate that I did love to drink and I would have ordered that outside of Seattle at a time when few bartenders were traveling as much as I was.

Murray Stenson   You can thank Ryan Magarian for taking it global.

Ryan Magarian   Murray has a better memory than just about anybody I know. I’ll take his word for it.

Ben Dougherty   I went to the Pegu Club [in New York] one time and gave them the recipe; said it was something we were making at Zig Zag. They got all excited.

Robert Hess   The bartender community is a very tight-knit family. They like to share information back and forth. They’d take [the recipe] back and do it at their bars. 

Ryan Magarian   I could have a Last Word in Seattle and then go to a great cocktail bar in New York and say, “Hey can you make me a Last Word? It’s simple: equal parts gin, maraschino, green chartreuse, and lime.” 

Sean Hoard (Bartender at PDT in New York, 2009–11, Bar Manager at Teardrop Lounge in Portland)   I started bartending at PDT, which at the time won world’s best cocktail bar [at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards]. At a bar like PDT there’s really no margin for error. You spend every waking hour studying cocktails. Someone was explaining that Murray was responsible for repopularizing the Last Word. I misheard that as “Murray came up with it.” For six months I told guests, “This guy Murray came up with this cocktail.”

Robert Hess   A lot of these bars—rather than simply making a great Manhattan or a great sidecar or a great mai tai or something like that—take pride in surprising the customers with a great drink that they may not have ever heard of before. 

Sean Hoard   It was one of the first 25 or 30 cocktails you learn besides whatever is on your menu. 

Ryan Magarian   A well-made Last Word is just a superpleasant balance of sweet, sour, and strength. It appeals to just about any and everybody. 

Robert Hess   Customers would remember the recipe and ask for it at other bars and help them understand the recipe. It spread like wildfire.

Sean Hoard   I knew who Murray was before I even knew what he looked like. He didn’t even have a last name, he was just Murray.

Stenson left Zig Zag in 2011, but the drink remains a given in craft bar repertoires. 

Robert Hess   The Last Word became that signature drink for bars that wanted to illustrate they were a craft bar before the terminology existed.

Murray Stenson   The whole thing was a fluke, anyway. It was just a matter of time before somebody else discovered it.

Sean Hoard   That’s what’s so funny about Murray. He transcended Seattle despite the fact that I don’t think he ever really wanted to. In Seattle there was Murray and there was Zig Zag and that was kind of it…. Even with the guys who I’ve come to meet, love, and really respect up there [in Seattle]—it’s Murray, then it’s everyone else, because of the Last Word.


This feature appeared in the December 2014 issue of Seattle Met magazine.

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