Now served in hot, large-format and draft versions, the chaotic college cocktail is an unlikely object of bartender affection.
During a recent episode of “Chef’s Night Out” on Vice’s Munchies YouTube channel, chefs Eric Sze and Lucas Sin sing the praises of their favorite cocktail, the Long Island Iced Tea. But they’re not naive to the drink’s lowbrow reputation. “When you go to a nice restaurant or bar and you ask for a Long Island Iced Tea, it’s essentially like going to a three-Michelin star omakase restaurant and ordering a California roll,” says Sze. The two chefs and their circle of friends refer to themselves as the Shy Boyz Club; aside from collaborating on pop-up events together, they gather regularly to eat Chinese food and pound Long Islands across New York City.
Not all bartenders, however, are willing to make them. In the Munchies episode, a server at Momofuku Ko apologetically informs Sze and Sin that the bar “can’t do Long Island Iced Teas.” Unfettered, the Shy Boyz order neat pours of all the base spirits (rum, tequila, gin, vodka and triple sec) and proceed to mix an improvised, and very expensive, one for themselves at the table.
The origins of the hard-hitting cocktail are, like most cocktails, a bit murky. Some say the drink was born during Prohibition outside of Kingsport, Tennessee, by a bootlegger named Charlie “Old Man” Bishop, who operated an illegal distillery on a strip of land in the Holston River known as Long Island. Bishop’s version had all the requisite translucent spirits found in today’s Long Islands (except triple sec), with the addition of whiskey and maple syrup. However, the more widely accepted origin story is that the recipe was the 1970s brainchild of Robert “Rosebud” Butt, who created it during a cocktail competition at the Oak Beach Inn on New York’s Long Island. His version brought triple sec into the mix, as well as the now-standard float of Coca-Cola.
Over the past few decades, bartenders have derided the Long Island Iced Tea as little more than a punchline. The slapdash consortium of spirits that make up the cocktail—usually neighbors in the slum of a bartender’s well—make strange bedfellows. But as the outside world descends into chaos, the chaotic cocktail appears to be having a moment. “On paper, the cocktail’s a mess,” says Nick Bennett, the beverage director of Porchlight Bar in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. “But if you look at the recipe, it’s really just a simple sour served as a highball.”
At Teddy’s Bar in Brooklyn, T.J. Gargan put his hot version of Long Island Iced Tea on the menu this past winter—first as a joke. “The city took indoor dining away, and we said, ‘This is gonna be the worst winter ever, so let’s just make a bunch of hot drinks and see if we can get people to sit outside,’” he remembers. “We started making hot versions of classic cocktails. Some of them were really bad.