In Defense of the Long Island Iced Tea
Yes, I'm a bit tacky and loud, just like the absurd cocktail that bears the name of my homeland.
Photo by Flickr user Marion Huber
A certain look sweeps across a person's face when you tell them you're from Long Island. If you have big bleached hair and some tattoos (I do), it's one of sudden understanding, of a preconceived notion clicking into place. " That's why you're a bit tacky and loud," their eyes say. "That's why you say cawfee like that." And yes, that's probably why I'm a bit tacky and loud, just like the absurd cocktail that bears the name of my homeland.
Beyond the stereotypes, we do have a few more famous exports: Blue Point oysters, Billy Joel, Brand New, the Baldwins. But it's the Long Island Iced Tea, a cocktail—if you can call it that— invented in the early '70s by a guy named Robert "Rosebud" Butt at Oak Beach Inn, that serves as our real introduction to the world.
The chief characteristic of this export is guaranteed drunkenness, something it has in common with the bridge-and-tunnel crowd that might invade New York City on any given weekend. It's certainly more akin to an Islanders fan barreling through Atlantic Terminal with a paperbag-covered tallboy in hand than, say, a well-dressed woman in heels sipping a Manhattan. If the British band Pulp were from Smithtown rather than Sheffield, the rum and coke in "Common People" might be a Long Island Iced Tea: the proletariat choice.
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The drink has clung to relevance through years of high-end reinvention, with the right kind of bartenders attempting to class it up. The drink played a prominent role in a recent New York Times piece titled "When Bad Drinks Go Good"; writer Robert Simonson says "The Long Island iced tea may be the cocktail that most often inspires quixotic bartenders to don their lifeguard gear," presumably to save it from itself.
Simonson offers as an example Jeffrey Morgenthaler (of Portland bars Pépé Le Moko and Clyde Common), who makes his with Mexican Coke. While the substitution of more expensive cane sugar for corn syrup signals to a certain class of people that it is "safe" to drink, there's little actual difference in the end result. If you feel weird ordering a Long Island in a dive bar off Sunrise Highway where the booze might inspire you to sing karaoke to "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" (another of our exports), why are you ordering it where they care what goes into drinks?
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The unapologetically gaudy and excessive blend of clear booze, with a touch of Coca-Cola, is utterly frivolous—"a youth-driven cocktail, to put it nicely," Empellón beverage director Noah Small tells me. In both its purest form and in cleaned-up recipes, the Long Island Iced Tea refuses to be taken seriously. When you order either, you're doing the same.
That's why at Doug Brickel's quickly expanding Cork & Kerry bars, which have brought the cocktail renaissance from the city to the island, Long Islands don't come cheap. "I charge more for a Long Island Iced Tea," he says. While their Lucky #9 (featuring milk-washed gin) could run you $13, you're going to have to hand over $17 for a Long Island.
There's some embarrassment involved when you're trying to renew an area's drinking culture and people come in asking for arguably the most maligned cocktail in history. Brickel has been working to push his clientele toward drinking for quality, and it's working. "Where people used to go out and drink ten $2 drinks, they're now happy drinking two $10 drinks," he explains. But the shift hasn't fully happened yet: "We're so close to the greatest drinking city in the world, and some people still don't know how to go out and order a cocktail."
This enduring cultural line is what makes the attempts to refine the Long Island feel like such a leap. There's the $7 pour at the East Village's Holiday Cocktail Lounge that uses tea-infused vodka, or the Amity Island Iced Tea at Empellón Al Pastor made with mezcal and cachaça. Small says his "is a slightly more adventurous drink" than the classic take, made with Moxie soda from New England rather than Coke. "I don't know if anyone who's routinely drawn to a Long Island Iced Tea is drawn to this one or not," he admits. The Long Island, then, seems less like a cocktail ready for reinvention than one frozen in the era before we all chose a preferred bourbon. No one can provide a solid reason for why we keep trying to thaw it out.
There are reasons for the division, though; why, despite the emergence of new drinking rules and introduction of cocktail bars, craft breweries, and decent restaurants west of the Hamptons, some might want to stick to the good old vodka days. In the time since the drink's 1972 creation, Long Island has become a sadder, scarier place. Suffolk County has the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths in New York State. There's a still-unidentified serial killer whose victims washed up on the beach (and we already had Joel Rifkin). The murder of an Ecuadorian immigrant in my hometown made it a place where Donald Trump felt safe campaigning, and now one high school where MS-13 has been especially successful reports non-gang-affiliated undocumented students to the FBI for deportation.
When someone who's made a home in Brooklyn takes the train out to newly gentrified Montauk, they're passing through a lot of misery—the sort that might make you want to pour every clear spirit into a glass, add a dash of corn-syrupy Coca-Cola, and forget.
In my city home, I go for the dressed-up version at Holiday Cocktail Lounge to pay homage to where I grew up. When I'm on Fire Island with family, I order the classic served in a clear Dixie cup and immediately regret it halfway through, when all of a sudden I'm in a heated argument with my mother. But whether it's unplanned karaoke or a fight with your loved ones, that's when you know you've got the real thing. That's the authentic Long Island Iced Tea experience.