Rescuing the Long Island Iced Tea From Its 1970s Origins

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Let’s just admit it, the Long Island Iced Tea is a bit of a joke. The drink had its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, but ordering one now will get you laughed out of half of America’s so-called craft cocktail bars. That’s a damn shame. Because when it’s made well—with the proper balance of spirits and fresh ingredients instead of cloying pre-made mixes—it is a cocktail that deserves its former status as the drink of choice for millions. It can be that way again. With a few tweaks we can restore this much-maligned classic to its rightful place in the pantheon of cocktail greats.

Now, this drink didn’t start off perfect. It’s the product of a time when polyester was fashionable and sour mixes were just as prevalent. Bartender Robert “Rosebud” Butt reportedly created the Long Island Iced Tea for a triple sec cocktail competition at the Oak Beach Inn on Long Island in the 1970s. The drink was one of those perfect storms of the cocktail world: it had a great name, it was easy to drink, and it could be replicated in any bar, anywhere. So the drink dominated the world, but in the process it colonized some not-so-remarkable places—dorm rooms, seedy karaoke bars and overturned glasses next to some poor bastard curled up by a toilet.

Eventually, people only thought of the bad times when it came to the Long Island Iced Tea. Even worse, when they recalled the flavor most people described it as too strong, too sweet or both. But the bartender in me got to thinking about the cocktail’s possibilities as my staff and I planned our newest bar. What if we could use what we’ve learned about making cocktails over the past fifteen years and apply it to this tired, out-of-date drink?

We took the complaints about strength and sweetness to heart. So we turned down the volume of liquor to a respectable, stiff level (goodbye pint glass, hello Collins glass), and made the drink with fresh lemon juice instead of sickly sweet sour mix. Then by employing some careful balancing of flavors between our booze and mixers, eschewing well liquor for more carefully selected spirits (e.g. Cointreau instead of triple sec) and using classic cocktail techniques (we shake the whole cocktail with fresh juice rather than building it in the glass), we made a delicious Long Island Iced Tea that leaves our guests satisfied, refreshed and upright at the bar instead of on the bathroom floor.

Long Island Iced Tea

½ oz. vodka (I recommend Smirnoff or Stoli, but anything will do)
½ oz. London Dry gin (we use Tanqueray at my bar)
½ oz. white rum (seek out the Plantation 3 Star, or Myers’s Platinum White)
½ oz. silver tequila (we use Pueblo Viejo silver)
½ oz. Cointreau
¾ oz. fresh lemon juice
2 tsp. 2:1 simple syrup

Shake ingredients with ice and strain over crushed ice in a chilled Collins glass. Float ¾ oz. Coca-Cola on top and garnish with a lemon twist.

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