The general consensus among true drink connoisseurs is (and always has been) that a fine cocktail beverage is a proper blend of a few flavors, not a muddling mixture of too many. Thus, according to such lore from the annals of fine mixology, many weekend barflies may be surprised to learn that one of today’s most popular beverages certainly wouldn’t be considered a “fine cocktail”; the drink in question is none other than the Long Island Iced Tea.
This beverage, since its creation in 1976, has grown to a position of immense popularity, especially among college-age drinkers traditionally around the time of spring break. Modern Drunkard magazine cites it as a beverage which “no matter how old you are, at some level, you’re still afraid your parents are going to catch you drinking,” due to its ability to mask that a cocktail is being consumed at all with its convenient resemblance to non-alcoholic iced tea. But be warned; however much it may look like iced tea, be reminded that it surely isn’t. Sporting a recipe that includes equal parts vodka, gin, tequila, rum and triple sec, the drink is typically higher in alcohol concentration that most beverages (around 28%), and thus has the effect of ridding one of their sobriety more quickly.
In spite of its “complex” blend of flavors, the International Bartender’s Association even designated the Long Island Iced Tea as an IBA Official Cocktail, citing it as one of its Fancy Drinks alongside other fruity frauds like the Apple Martini, Cosmopolitan, or the naughty-sounding Sex on the Beach (which many restaurants rename “Fun on the Beach” or something to the liking, so as to avoid having to print the word “sex” on their menus). Granted, I’ll agree that such beverages do indeed have their place in mixology… for instance, as the name may imply, “Sex on the Beach” with its sweet blend of vodka with peach schnapps, orange juice and cranberry juice makes for a perfect, even slightly decadent summertime cocktail to enjoy in a tropical or Oceanside setting. However, the reason that the classic purveyors of mixed-drinks didn’t favor the use of too many juices and sugars in a beverage had to do with the fact that it didn’t help stimulate one’s appetite. This, of course, has been remedied in modern times by the careful inclusion of terms like “after dinner cocktail” in the classifications of the IBA and others, thus proving in the long run that basically all enjoyable mixed drinks have their time and place.
Which brings us back to the innocuous Long Island Iced Tea… really, could a beverage that looks this much like plain ole’ iced tea from the sweet sunny south be that dangerous (aside from its large quantity of alcohol that I mentioned previously)? Interestingly, the Long Island may indeed be a bit different (just a bit) from its many muddling cousins.
The key to the recipe seems to be the way in which the many ingredients react to create a surprisingly non-alcoholic flavor. According to the Wisconsin Journal Record, “the juniper berries in the gin mix with the molasses of the rum, which reacts with the agave of the tequila. The vodka adds more liquor with neutral flavor, and you then find a chemical compound close to the same taste as regular iced tea, which all but eliminates strong alcohol flavors.” This, soured slightly with a bit of sour mix and triple sec, then watered down with a splash of cola, completes the curiously tea-like flavor. Again, the multitude of ingredients in this recipe appear to be working together in order to create this particular flavor, as opposed to using too many to cover bad flavors created by use of poor quality liquors (though you could probably make these all day with bottom shelf brands and still get very similar results, especially with the inclusion of sour mix and cola).
As mentioned before, the drink isn’t particularly old, invented in 1976 by bartender Robert “Rosebud” But, who created the Long Island Iced Tea while working as a bartender at the controversial Oak Beach Inn on Long Island, NY. However, as a final point of contention regarding this unique beverage—and in spite of the raucous history of the bartender’s place of employment—perhaps a more relevant source of debate has to do with “Rosebud’s” actual last name, which according to various sources, I’ve seen spelled “Butt”, or simply “But” as used above, or even “Buttu” in a few instances. At present, no amount of searching has provided me with a reasonable explanation as to the various misspellings that have occurred over the few decades since “Rosebud” began serving the beverage at his place of employment. Regardless, and in spite of various other theories as to its origin, Rosebud Butt(u) is still popularly credited with the creation of the beverage.
So on occasion, maybe there is logic behind serving the occasional beverage which blends a variety of different spirits along with overtly sweet (or in the case of the Long Island, sour) ingredients. I still chuckle a little at Modern Drunkard’s theory that the beverage allows covert drinkers to imbibe with a concoction that still looks as though it were non-alcoholic, just in case family were to arrive and catch you sipping the thing. Funny enough, alternate theories regarding the drink’s origin involve similar circumstances dating back to Prohibition times, when the drink could have served as a kind of “front” for anyone who wanted to imbibe on the sly, especially when the threat of discipline lingered ever-present. But regardless as to how or where the drink first appeared, it remains one of today’s most popular beverages, and virtually anywhere you visit you’re likely to see people drinking these by the glass (and subsequently falling off their barstools). Mixed correctly, this beverage may indeed be worthy of being called a cocktail… but I think I’ll stick with my Martinis for now.