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. Don’t ever try to make a hot Margarita.”
Teddy’s hot Long Island, however, stuck. The drink is served in a pint glass with a cardboard coffee cup sleeve and a Lipton tea bag dangling off the side. It has a slightly homeopathic quality, like a medicinal formula a grandmother might whip up with a nip of booze to cure a sore throat. The drink feels much more like a hangover cure than the cause of one, which is unusual for a cocktail whose reputation is built on drunken consequences.
Other bartenders in Brooklyn welcome the challenge of rehabilitating the marginalized drink. “I take pride in making cocktails that bartenders hate making and making them really amazing,” says Channing Centeno, who designed the cocktail list at Bonnie’s Restaurant in Williamsburg. Although a traditional Long Island recipe is made without tea, Centeno makes an orange pekoe tea syrup, which gives the drink a backbone of earthy black tea flavor. For his interpretation, Centeno also incorporates a lemon cordial, which alongside the requisite gin and vodka, leans on a base of unaged Copalli rum from Belize and Hennessy VS—a nod to the popularity of brandy in Hong Kong, the native city of Bonnie’s chef-owner Calvin Eng.
The day after Bonnie’s opened, Eng invited his friends, the Shy Boyz, to celebrate and asked Centeno to concoct a round of LIITs for everyone. It was never meant to be on the menu, but the minute the Shy Boyz’s video hit Instagram, customers were clamoring for it. To preserve the convivial spirit, Bonnie’s Long Island Iced Teas are only offered in large-format versions meant for eight to 10 people, served from oversize teapots and poured into ceramic teacups over large cubes. “It’s a super crushable cocktail,” says Centeno.
At Porchlight, Bennett likewise saw an opportunity to improve upon the stigmatized drink. “I put it on the menu because people were asking for it,” Bennett admits. For his version, he dispenses the Long Islands from a draft system that gently carbonates the drink. “The idea that a Long Island Iced Tea is a bad cocktail is ludicrous. It’s just been made poorly, and that’s our fault as bartenders,” says Bennett, a native Long Islander from Sag Harbor. “It’s our responsibility to make it well for our guests.”
Instead of emptying the well into a mixing tin, Bennett batches a base of Fords gin, Espolón tequila and Appleton Estate Jamaican rum in kegs with a housemade cola syrup and acid-adjusted citrus cordial. The drink is served in a Hot Toddy mug, christened with a few dashes of Angostura bitters to provide the signature ombre effect of a splash of Coke.
“Now we can take a step back from what came out of that era of sour mix and disco cocktails and put all this classic, analytical technique back into these drinks,” explains Bennett. “Cocktails like the Long Island Iced Tea are fair game again.”