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:
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.