No one thinks highly of the Long Island Iced Tea. Born in 1972 during the cocktail Dark Ages at the Oak Beach Inn by a guy named Robert “Rosebud” Butt, this combination of gin, vodka, tequila, white rum, triple sec, lemon juice and a splash of Coke became famous for its ability to get you drunk, fast. It would usually be served in a pint glass, a bucket of booze that could go down far easier than one would expect from something with that composition. Oh, and sometimes there’s sour mix in it, just to make it a little bit more retro.
When the cocktail renaissance gained traction in New York City and began to spread, the Long Island wasn’t part of anyone’s emerging canon. Seriousness and decorum were in vogue, and this drink encourages neither. Eventually, though, once we all came to understand the proper way to order a martini or choose a suitable bourbon for an old-fashioned, the culture loosened up. Suddenly we were treated to drinks dyed blue by curaçao. The espresso martini turned up in otherwise respectable bars. And bartenders decided it might be time to clean up the Long Island iced tea.
To do this, one would start by moving out of the well: Choosing higher-end spirits is the first step on the path to making a cocktail that doesn’t ensure its drinker blacks out that evening. There are takes with Mexican Coke, and versions featuring mezcal. All of these seek to make something classy out of a drink whose mythology is one of unapologetic trashiness. They also generally come with a strong whiff of pretension and condescension: These aren’t bartenders from Long Island, who can treat the hometown cocktail with the sense of humor and affection it deserves.
Now, though, as the craft cocktail scene on the island grows, there are innovations emerging—new renditions of the Long Island iced tea that could change the recipe for good.
Jonathan Orlando, a bartender at Blackbird Kitchen & Bar in Wantagh with seven years’ experience behind the stick, has a reputation as a very science-minded bartender. The menu at Blackbird currently serves 16 varieties of old-fashioneds, with the recipes from different famous bars around the world.
His “Fancy Lawng Guyland Iced Tea” is made with equal parts Ford’s Gin, Ketel One Vodka, Cointreau, Don Julio Blanco and Denizen Rum, which settle together in one container for about an hour. He then mixes 1½ ounces of that spirits blend with simple syrup, ¼ teaspoon Fernet-Branca, 1 dash Angostura Bitters, ¾ ounce fresh lemon juice, 3 ounces Prosecco and 1 ounce Mexican Coke. It’s all served over a large clear ice cube and garnished with a lemon wheel—in a rocks glass, not a pint.
“It’s almost incongruous: You see all these really nice, kind of cerebral cocktails, a bunch of old-fashioneds, and then out of nowhere, a Long Island iced tea,” he says. “People are like, ‘Wait, why is there a Long Island iced tea on here?’ And I say, ‘Because I want to make the best Long Island iced tea on Long Island.’”
The inspiration was the rum and coke served at New York City’s BlackTail at Pier A. There, the Cuba Libre takes on new depth with a blend of rums, bitter elements, and fizz from a dash of Champagne. That Orlando reaches for prosecco to update his LIIT makes sense both culinarily and culturally: Its sweetness is needed, sure, but we also know Long Island has a rather robust Italian-American population.
When Orlando first tried one himself, he was working in Rockville Centre and drinking a lot of beer. Someone told him that he should just have a Long Island iced tea “if he really wanted to have a party.”
“It kind of tasted like a dumpster fire and Coca-Cola,” he recalls. “It was overwhelming, because I didn’t expect it to be that much booze in a pint glass. I was used to vodka sodas and gin and tonics.” Still, they were a good value: “I did keep drinking them for a while.”
It continues to be a youth beverage in its classic form, as Mike Wittenberg of Huntington’s the Rust & Gold confirms. He classifies the people who order it as “young kids and uninformed drinkers looking to get fucked up.” Orlando notes it’s almost a rite of passage, to find one’s drinking footing through trial and error because no one is around to guide you toward less intoxicating options.
“I just wanted to go out, drink beers, get drunk, meet girls, get phone numbers, get rejected and go home and have a story about it at four o’clock in the morning,” he says. “But then you get older and realize you can go out, have a good time, have a few drinks and not have a hangover.” It’s at that age that one usually quits ordering Long Islands, but with new recipes, it could be added back into one’s cocktail rotation without too heavy a dose of nostalgia.
Reforming both its recipe and reputation is an important matter for bartenders who don’t want to contend with rowdy guests—though Wittenberg, by his own admission, is more of a “party guy” than Orlando.
Along with other more craft-minded bartenders on the island, Wittenberg’s joined the Long Island Bartenders League, which is doing regular competitions for charity as well as posing cocktail challenges to each other. A recent one? Make the best possible Long Island iced tea.
When presented with the challenge on the spot one Saturday evening, he whipped up a version with reposado tequila, a barrel-aged rum, Stoli vodka, organic gin, Cointreau in place of triple sec, fresh lime and lemon, lavender simple syrup, and—as required—a splash of Coke. The result was certainly booze-forward but balanced, refreshing without being too sweet.
There’s a levity and thoughtfulness in these reimaginings of the cocktail that aren’t present when someone working outside its birthplace makes an attempt to renew it. Orlando and Wittenberg don’t want to clean the drink up, but rather make it the best version of itself it can be. They’re proving that the Long Island iced tea, when treated right, can be a source of light instead of blackouts.