You’re Making Your Long Island Iced Tea Wrong (But Here’s the Right Way to Do It)

The Long Island Iced Tea carries a stigma with it. And if you order it in a bar, that stigma will transfer to you. You will walk away with a tall, extremely strong cocktail, but you will also walk away with a scarlet T on your shirt, for “Tacky.” That said, if made correctly, it can be a delicious drink. So cut out the middleman, avoid all the judgement and just make your own Long Island at home—but be sure to make it the right way.

Until recently, Holiday Cocktail Lounge in NYC featured a Long Island Iced Tea on their cocktail menu. It was listed alongside tropical rum drinks served over crushed ice with an Angostura float and Old Fashioned riffs made with homemade syrups. It was presented as a cocktail that you, a sophisticated cocktailian, were allowed to order. “We thought it was funny,” Erik Trickett, the bar manager, says candidly. And it was. But it was also made with as much care as any other craft cocktail on that menu. Here, Trickett reveals the right way to make a respectable Long Island Iced Tea at home.

Use Good Quality (But Inexpensive) Spirits

As much as it just feels like you’re dumping everything but the wet bar sink into this cocktail, the spirits you choose do matter. At Holiday, the well spirits include Plantation 3 Star white rum, Lunazul tequila, New Amsterdam gin and Polish Select vodka. All of these spirits are fairly mellow and easy going, meaning they play well with each other. No one flavor jumps out of the mix, and that’s the way it should be for a classic Long Island. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Don’t Be Afraid to Change Out One Spirit for Another

The classic recipe for a Long Island calls for equal parts of white rum, silver tequila, vodka and gin. But that doesn’t mean you can’t break from tradition every now and then. “If you don’t have any rum, skip it and sub in more of everything else,” Trickett suggests. Or try swapping it out for cachaça and using a peppery tequila to compliment the Brazilian spirit’s grassy flavors. “Or maybe you love Malibu,” he says. Go ahead and make it a tropical drink, putting the emphasis on the island. “I know that this is a canonized cocktail and everyone has their opinions, but drinking should be fun,” he says.

Swap Out the Triple Sec for Orange Liqueur

“We don’t use triple sec,” Trickett says, instead they use Gran Torres orange liqueur. “It adds more depth because, instead of being based around neutral grain spirits, it’s based around Spanish brandy with bitter Seville oranges. It has more depth as opposed to floor cleaner orange.” You don’t have to use that specific brand, but do play around with other brandy-based orange liqueurs like Grand Marnier or Mandarine Napoleon. If you this is the only tip you follow, you’ll still wind up with a much more grown-up and balanced Long Island.

Never Use Sour Mix

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Fresh citrus and simple syrup will always trump store-bought sour mix. Trickett agrees, using a mix of one part simple syrup to one and half parts lemon juice.

Use a Shaker

The general rule of thumb is that if a drink is made with citrus juice, it should be shaken. Long Islands are made with citrus juice (if you’re making them right), so shake them. That way you dilute the drink, incorporate the lemon and sugar, and aerate the mix. It’s the best way to ensure a consistent cocktail. “Build it in a tin, shake and strain over ice and top with Coke,” Trickett says.

Try Swapping Out the Cola for Actual Tea

The Coke in a traditional Long Island Iced Tea is mostly there to add color and just a little bit more sugar. It’s not completely integral to the drink, so Holiday swaps it out for black tea syrup. “We brew really, really strong black tea and turn it into simple syrup,” Trickett says. “It gives it color and also adds tannic tea notes. It still looks and tastes like a Long Island, just not as campy.”

Use Big Ice

Trickett recommends using the biggest ice cubes you can possibly fit into your Collins glass (or whatever highball glass you have at hand). “If you have spears, great,” he says. “Otherwise just big cubes.” The large cubes dilute at just the right rate, allowing you to sip your drink slowly without it turning into a completely watered down mess.

Skip the Lemon Wedge, Use a Wheel Instead for Garnish

While a lemon wedge is the usual garnish for a Long Island, it’s too tempting to squeeze—and your drink shouldn’t need any more lemon juice. Instead, garnish the cocktail with a lemon wheel and a good brandied cherry instead of a neon maraschino cherry. “I don’t like anything that’s been blanched and filled with chemicals,” says Trickett.

Scale It Up or Scale It Down

The great thing about a Long Island Iced Tea is how easy it is to scale up or down depending on your mood and crowd size. “If you want to build a pitcher you can scale the whole recipe up,” Trickett says. (Check out our punch bowl-sized recipe.) Instead of trying to shake the giant drink just, “give it a good stir and let it sit so the ice can work its way into everything.” If you’d prefer to have a more aperitif-sized cocktail, scale everything down so that you are only using a half ounce of each spirit, like Holiday used to do. The bar opted for the smaller size because it was much more cost effective (a full sized Long Island at a good cocktail bar can end up costing over $20) and also because it was the more responsible way to serve customers. “But if you’re at home, go ahead and get bombed,” Trickett says. Safely, of course.