Friday, May 24th, 2013

Saving Summer's Trashiest Cocktail: Make Way For The $21 Long Island Ice Tea

11 Madison Park is either a very good restaurant or the absolute best restaurant in New York City. It depends on whom you ask. But don't ask me: I've only had a drink at 11 Madison Park, and that drink was a Long Island Iced Tea. It came in a highball with four perfect cubes of ice and a wedge of lemon. It cost sixteen dollars and tasted just like college.

"I haven't served one of these in six months," the bartender told me. Like his peers at the other fine New York bars and restaurants where I have lately been ordering Long Island Iced Teas, he had repeated my order back to me: "Long Island Iced Tea?" His neck muscles tightened, giving bloom to a gritted smile. That smile said: "The customer is always right." I confirmed the order, and he obligingly prepared it. Later, when we struck up a conversation, he told me the last person to order a Long Island Iced Tea at 11 Madison Park "was definitely not from New York."

There is no cocktail as maligned as the Long Island Iced Tea. Equal parts vodka, gin, white rum, white tequila, and triple sec, plus sour mix and a splash of coke—its reputation is basically on par with rufinol. "I first started taking cocktails seriously, if that's the word I want," David Wondrich, the cocktail writer for Esquire, once said, "when I realized that I couldn't in all good conscience step up to the bar at a place called ‘The Mudd Club' and order something called a ‘Long Island Iced Tea.'"

Wondrich's snobbery is common in New York. "Long Island Iced Tea drinkers need not apply," begins the Zagat entry for the Pegu Club in SoHo. Like everything else, cocktail menus have grown decadent and incomprehensible. Why drink a Manhattan, when you can drink a Manhattan that's been aged in an oak barrel for six weeks? If you like old fashioneds, then wait until you try the smoked old fashioned. Before you know it, you're drinking an Applethy: "horseradish-infused Absolut vodka mixed with green apple juice, carbonated, and served on draft with a slice of apple that has been sliced on a meat slicer and compressed in a vacuum bag with Campari."

What you definitely won't be drinking is a Long Island Iced Tea. "It's traditionally ordered by people looking to get inebriated in a hurry," said Brian Van Flandern, who served exactly three Long Island Iced Teas in his three years as the "head mixologist" at Per Se, where they cost twenty-five dollars apiece. "They don't know what else to order." For a Long Island Iced Tea, you head to Coyote Ugly. "If you're at a nice bar, you order a widow's kiss," the bartender at 11 Madison Park recommended.

I started ordering Long Island Iced Teas because, secretly, I've always believed it to be a more interesting drink than people credit. American cocktails came of age during Prohibition, when the booze was so bad you had to mix it with something else—sugar, citrus, egg—just to make it potable. The Long Island Iced Tea, with so many awful ingredients, stays true to this original cocktail spirit. It doesn't taste good exactly, but that it's drinkable at all is pure alchemy. Maybe it would benefit from a new habitat, a better upbringing.

"Long Island Iced Tea!" said Luis, the bartender at Bemelmans Bar, with a hubba-hubba cadence. His enthusiasm was surprising, given the setting: Bemelmans, which is tucked in the first floor of the Carlyle, is the epitome of uptown elegance, and named after the children's illustrator who hand-painted its wallpaper. Ludwig Bemelmans' paintbrush couldn't reach the ceiling, so they gilded it with gold leaf instead. The jazz music at Bemelmans is live, and the bartenders wear red jackets, as though going on a fox hunt for after work.

Ten years earlier, a New York Times reporter ordered a Long Island Iced Tea from Luis, and his recipe hadn't changed: He used the juice of half a lime and half a lemon in place of sour mix, shook it like a maraca, then topped it off with Coke. ("If you shake it with the Coca-Cola, it's going to splat," the Times quoted Luis.) The lime juice was a novel and refreshing addition. Price: twenty-one dollars.

Luis admitted he hadn't served a Long Island Iced Tea in awhile, but said they were popular at Bemelmans in the nineties. Then cocktail culture took over, and everyone started ordering Manhattans and martinis and widow's kisses. This was surprising, since Bemelmans has always been classy and the Long Island Iced Tea has always been anything but. "It's a college drink, or a first-timers drink," said Bob Butt, the man who invented the Long Island Iced Tea at the Oak Beach Inn—on Long Island—in 1972. Butt now lives in Florida and runs the Official Website of the Original Long Island Iced Tea. "It's amazing to me how many hits I get," he said. "I probably get forty hits a day."

A good Long Island Iced Tea, Butt said, is stealthy: "When it's made right, you can't tell how strong it is." He invented the drink like a child at a soda fountain, taking all the clear liquors at his bar station and mixing them together. When a colleague said it tasted a bit like tea, Butt added a splash of Coke and said, "Now it looks like tea, too." In no time, the Oak Beach Inn was mixing Long Island Iced Teas in the basement and serving them on tap. 41 years later, he got his credit due, when PBS featured him on its "Inventor" series.

"In those days there were no drunk charges for anybody, you could drink whatever you want," Butt said. (True in practice then, if not in law: New York state was the first to forbid drunk driving.) "It was always my suggestion to buy them for girls," he said. "One of those, most young girls were staggering. Two and you were out in the car."

Here is a good rule: Never trust a man who wants to buy you a Long Island Iced Tea. And even when you buy one yourself, be prepared to regret it. "The Long Island Iced Tea makes you do things that you normally wouldn't do," Lorelai once said on The Gilmore Girls. CNN interviewed a woman named Cynthia Pereles after her five-year-old son Seth was served a Long Island Iced Tea at Applebee's. "He was basically, you know, laughing uncontrollably, licking the things on the table like the bread basket," she told Anderson Cooper. "He was speaking very loudly." Textbook Long Island Iced Tea behavior.

I spent my twenty-first birthday throwing up into a salad bowl because I drank too many Long Island Iced Teas. Your classic dive-bar Long Island Iced Tea carries a distinct note of stomach acid: After a certain point, it tastes basically the same going down as it does coming back up. This might explain why people stop drinking it.

But at a nice bar, you'll find this flavor greatly diminished: It is, I think, mostly a property of the sour mix, which a good bar will replace with fresh lemon juice and simple syrup.

The other main difference between a "good" Long Island Iced Tea and the one you remember (or don't remember) from college is the quality of the spirits: They're better, obviously, at a nice bar. The bartenders, too, were unfailingly polite once they overcame their initial disbelief. At the Clover Club, the bartender was actually grateful: Most drinks there require a silly amount of paraphernalia, and the Long Island Iced Tea, which needs only a shot glass and a tumbler, gave him a mental health break.

Still, some of the bartenders didn’t know what they were doing. At the Pegu Club, the Zagat warning proved prescient: The bartender left out the triple sec, and poured in whiskey. It tasted basically the same. The Long Island Iced Tea at the Clover Club tasted like tequila and Coke. At 11 Madison Park, when I ordered a second cocktail, the bartender tried to class up the Long Island Iced Tea with some ginger ale, Amaro, and… I don’t really know. It tasted like a Dark 'n' Stormy™ spiked with a Long Island Iced Tea.

This got me thinking: What if I had been looking to appreciate the Long Island Iced Tea in all the wrong places? I went to my liquor cabinet and poured a little bit of everything into a tumbler, shook it with lemon juice and simple syrup, strained it into a high ball and, lacking soda, topped it off with a Corona. The Campari lent the drink an attractive orange hue; the Pernod, a licorice bouquet. I hope you believe me when I say this: It tasted not bad. It tasted more or less like a Long Island Iced Tea. You can try it for yourself:

Ben’s Long Island Iced Tea

1/4 ounce Averna amaro

1/4 ounce Campari

1/4 ounce pisco

1/4 ounce St. Germain

1/4 ounce cointreau

1/4 ounce gin

1/4 ounce Pernod

1/4 ounce rye

1/4 ounce apple brandy

1/4 ounce Benedictine

Juice of half a lemon

1/4 ounce simple syrup


Shake all ingredients except for the Corona in a tumbler with ice. Pour in a highball filled with ice, and top off with Corona. Serve with a wedge of lime or lemon.

This seemed a natural place to conclude my experiment. The Long Island Iced Tea was now demystified. I took three sips. Then I dumped it down the sink and finished the Corona.

Ben Crair is a story editor at The New Republic. Photo by Jason Wesley Upton.

46 Comments / Post A Comment

Pulp (#1,885)

Whatever. I make something much, much worse. Or much much better I guess, depending on what you're looking for.

Drawn7979 (#242,134)

i'm hoping much better?

stuffisthings (#1,352)

What kind of soup does it go in?

Meredith L. (#10,285)

In hostels of lesser repute outside of Venice, a long island iced tea is called an "Attitude Adjuster" and instead of sour mix and coke, they add in a half a Bacardi Breezer of your choice. 20 year old me deeply regrets personal knowledge of the Attitude Adjuster.

I never see anyone doing Mind Erasers up here. They were everywhere the summers I spent in South Carolina.

blergh (#177,628)

@Brooklyn Battery I love(d) Mind Erasers!

I bet Bemelmann's does a fantastic Mind Eraser. Hmmm. I work nearby. I'm not a fan of the pianist (although he drowns out the sound of your drinking companions, so if you're out with a hedge-fund type that's usually a good thing.) Hmmm. Maybe I'll go after work and see how many men old enough to be my grandpa will hit on me? Who wants to come? Mind erasers, Long Island iced teas, and banana daiquiris for all!

Titania (#8,471)

@blergh Favorite dating war story: I was on a date at the bar at Bemelman's, with an old-ish guy who had just announced, "Oh, you're a writer? I write too. That's why I don't read. To retain the purity of my thoughts," when the hottest dude either home from Harvard/living in a spare family apartment/whatever walked in and sat down a few stools away. I told my date I wasn't feeling well, we left, I got in a cab, told him to circle the block, called the bar and said, "Tommy, is the guy in the navy fleece vest still sitting there?" He said "yes ma'am," so I got out, went back in, sat down, and introduced myself. He thought I was a hooker for about 20 minutes, but after we cleared that up we went on to have a riotous few years.

The moral of this story is: never underestimate the frattiness of true WASPs in their native habitat. Especially with a couple of drinks in them. President Kennedy, after all, was the person who put the daiquiri on the map in this country. I will go order a Mind Eraser there with you any day of the week.

blergh (#177,628)

@Titania It is very good that I am the only person here right now, because I am howling with laughter and delight.

I really do work nearby. I get off work at 6. Let's do this!

@Titania I love this story so much.

daemonsquire (#9,523)

When I used to work on the options floor at the Pacific Stock Exchange, we'd send a runner out to our favorite local, to bring back a tray of these, poured discreetly into tall lidded paper coffee cups.

Then, the computers took over…

ArtisDead (#12,792)

@daemonsquire We did the same thing at the Chicago Board Options Exchange back then. I was the runner. Sign Of The Trader made the meanest ones and you could pick up some of their famous turtle soup to line your stomach with first.

Fucking Quotrons!!!!!

SidAndFinancy (#4,328)

Ben, what you made is not a Long Island Iced Tea. That's called a Trashcan. (Some of everything in mom and dad's liquor cabinet so they won't notice a lot of any one thing missing.)

Also, rufinol is an interesting neologism. The drug is called Rohypnol, and I suppose somewhere along the way someone, perhaps under the influence of a Trashcan, transposed some letters and came up with the 'ph' sound in "roofie."

BadUncle (#153)

@SidAndFinancy I've heard it used on presumably liability-sensitive sitcoms. Or at least I think I might have, if it weren't for the roofies.

It's about 1000 times more shameful to order a "horseradish-infused Absolut vodka mixed with green apple juice, carbonated, and served on draft with a slice of apple that has been sliced on a meat slicer and compressed in a vacuum bag with Campari" than it is to order a LI iced tea.

And it's about 1000 times more shameful to serve an "Applethy" than to order one.

PhasmaFelis (#246,241)

Yeah, seriously, what is it is with all these weirdos who think your choice of cocktail has to *mean* something? Every cocktail means the same thing: you wanna get buzzed while tricking your tastebuds into not noticing that you're drinking poison. The rest is pure personal taste.

This article is like watching people get all snotty over Coke vs. Pepsi. You'd think actual bartenders at least would know better.

trenches (#219,719)

One gains a real appreciation of the LIIT when it's compared not with cocktails, but with standard mixed drinks like Gin and Tonic, Whiskey and Coke, etc. I've always felt the LIIT is the most balanced of the bunch, the least sickly-sweet/tart.

And if you think about it, a Dark and Stormy would be a straight-up trash drink if it weren't served in one of those copper mugs.

Ellie (#18,264)

What I think is so amazing about the Long Island Iced Tea is how much it tastes like lemonade. Or at least like lemon iced tea. I just don't understand how that's possible. It's one of the most alcoholic drinks you can drink, yet it tastes less like alcohol than almost any other alcoholic drink you can drink.

Mr. B (#10,093)

"'One of those, most young girls were staggering. Two and you were out in the car.'"

That noise you're hearing is the bartenders of Long Island high-fiving one another.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

My local does a drink called a Peruvian Bear Fucker. You pour half a can of PBR or other cheap swill into a pint glass, mix with an equal amount of orange juice, drop in a shot of cheap spiced rum and chug the whole thing. Tastes like a creamsicle.

Siets@twitter (#244,285)

@stuffisthings so, uh… how did that get its name?

hockeymom (#143)

It tastes like regret.

beatrixkiddo1 (#2,988)

I used to work at a nice cocktail bar in Soho that attracted a mix of locals and European tourists. In five years, absolutely every person that ever ordered a LI Iced Tea was french and male, and they all acted like they were about to partake in some sort of local delicacy. Apparently young frenchmen got the idea somewhere that Long Island iced teas are the bagels/pizza of booze and must be experienced when visiting New York. Lord knows how the rest of their evenings went, poor things.

Ophelia (#75,576)

Is it just me, or did Stefon invent the Applethy?

SidAndFinancy (#4,328)

Whatever — have two hand grenades in the French Quarter and call me in the morning. Two days hence.

There's a shitty hipster bar in London that smells like strippers and serves something called the Shoreditch Iced Tea (or Hackney or Dalston or Camden or whatever). They changed like one of the ingredients, I can't remember which, and all of a sudden it is vile.

BadUncle (#153)

I've always believed it to be a more interesting drink than people credit.
They do make for inspired projectile vomits. As for me, I only drink cocktails with two ingredients, and one of them is ice.

frinkie (#13,793)

I preferred an "Adios" when I wanted to get the most bang for my buck in my early twenties. I can't even imagine drinking one of those now. Jesus.

orejitasmiamor (#235,366)

@frinkie Are you talking about the notorious A.M.F.? They are basically a long island with blue curacao. I knew a bartender that thought the worst of anyone who ordered anything involving blue curacao, so now I can't drink those, not that I want to.

jane lane (#13,631)

@orejitasmiamor I met a very drunk man a few months ago who tried to order a vodka redbull for himself and "something girly and blue" for his date. He ended up with a blue curacao vodka redbull.

sarpar (#244,203)

I ordered a Long Island Iced Tea when I was visiting the US thinking it would be iced tea with a splash of gin or something. So wrong.

Anarcissie (#3,748)

If you just wanted to get a load on, you wouldn't bother with this stuff. And if you wanted something that tasted good, you wouldn't bother with it either. And no amount or kind of alcohol 'makes' you do anything but pass out, so that's not a reason for it, either. And most people outgrow mere awfulness in their late teens. So there's just no excuse at all.

ArtisDead (#12,792)

The demented owner of the gay disco I bartended my way through college at made us charge 5X the price for a LIIT as a regular mixed drink. It was about the only rational business direction he ever edicted but his motivation was more from his love/hate (mostly hate) attitude towards dykes (mixed club in small college town). The dykes loved LIITs and Orgasms (Kalua, vodka and heavy cream) which we were to also edicted to upcharge massively (this was the 80s).

PS. I always did find it amazing how much all that vodka, tequila, whisky, sweet & sour, soda, secret ingredients and coke really did taste just like iced tea although Orgasms didn't taste at all like…..

shannowhamo (#226,574)

@ArtisDead This reminds me of the brief time in my life where Sex on the Beach was my drink and it was all because this bartender at a gay cowboy bar in DC made a very delicious one. It was brown for some reason but so good, I've never had another bartender recreate it (even the other bartender at the same bar.) Are Sex on the Beaches as reviled as Long Island Iced Teas? I have always felt judged ordering them so I stopped (but they are so tasty!)

beatrixkiddo1 (#2,988)

@shannowhamo Sex on the Beaches are just as reviled I think, but for different reasons. If ordering a Long Island Iced Tea makes you look like a tasteless idiot who just wants to get wasted, ordering a Sex on the Beach will make you look like a tasteless idiot who is also a total lightweight. (That said, people should really just drink whatever the hell they want. Cocktails aren't a window to the soul.)

evilinfertileshrew (#244,480)

@shannowhamo Say more about this gay cowboy bar.

gibbleman (#244,260)

he looks drunk :D and cannot focus on the camera

littlejimmy (#244,268)

LoL, I hate long islang tea too. Beers will be a better choice.
Belgravia Villas

Max RN (#205,900)

For my 22nd birthday, I went to a bar with a few friends that was having "Long Island" night. Long Island Ice Teas were five dollars each. They bought me four, and then I went to a friends apartment to drink more, where I became a bit comatose and tried to play beer pong while sitting on a couch, watching the room rotate around my outstretched pong ball.

I then staggered back to my house and spent an hour puking into the snow off my porch. I woke up the next morning and couldn't make it out of my house without puking, which was bad, because I was a TA and was supposed to be working that day. And then a series of bad things unrelated to the LIIT happened, but still, it overshadowed the whole weekend.

In short: Long Island Ice Tea, never again.

@yesquite (#14,682)

While bartending at a local Austin, TX punk rock music venue, I found that the oldest, most grizzled punk gents were very keen on LIITs. They didn't give shit one what anyone thought of their order; they just drank it to get efficiently ruined. My most common LIIT customer, a notorious brawler, had a face like a sack of garden tools. But hey, this is Texas. All orders are above reproach as long as they contain booze. Don't sidle up to the bar and order a fuckin' sody-pop.

evilinfertileshrew (#244,480)

@@yesquite Back in the forties/fifties, my Texas grandparents used to frequent dry bars, where all you could buy were "set ups" and you had to bring your own alcohol. Go, Texas!

jedgeco@twitter (#244,312)

he told me the last person to order a Long Island Iced Tea at 11 Madison Park "was definitely not from New York."

The horror!

GeoTherapyCarefest (#244,314)

While yea, ordering a Long Island Iced Tea in any bar in New York is up there (down there) with ordering a smirnoff ice or some shit like that, there area a few honorable institutions that have disgusting, multi booze sugary concoctions of their own and are happy to serve you, if only for their own entertainment.

The one I have the most intimate experience with is the Dead Poet, served at the Dead Poet on the UWS. Probably a favorite mind eraser of Columbia students (don't know any) but its something I might have fucked with during my years immediately post college. I would never order one sober, and I have no idea whatever happened to me after drinking one (except maybe falling off a barstool and getting sorta close to making out with a sewer grate)

Basically it was all for sport. Plus you get to keep the glass (its a mason jar with a handle, and ended up being the only available drinking vessel in my apartment for many years, we had a collection)

voltamxp (#244,332)

so good

Tierkom (#244,433)

I love this story so so much too.

evilinfertileshrew (#244,480)

When I was 18 and in my freshman year of college in Manhattan, I did acid with a bunch of friends, and then we went out drinking. I had a Long Island Iced Tea (never had one before or since) and had the only no-touch orgasm of my life, sitting at a table with my friends in a bar on Tompkins Square. I still remember that, and it's been more than twenty years. That drink just might be magic.

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