The Long Island Iced Tea Is All Grown Up
Bartenders are classing it up with mezcal, frozen lemonade, homemade cola, and herbaceous syrups.
Eric Sze is a lauded chef and the owner of two wildly popular Tawinese restaurants in New York City. But even he can occasionally be found saddled up to a bar not just drinking, but chugging, a drink that’s synonymous with hazy nights out: the Long Island Iced Tea.
Sze has been known to indulge in a game he calls “The LIIT Challenge,” in which whoever is the last to finish their Long Island Iced Tea is forced to order another. And if that sounds like a deranged college drinking game, well, that’s because it was. Sze has been enjoying this decidedly low-brow drink since his early days with alcohol and continued loving it into adulthood, so when he tapped Morgan Robison as the beverage director for his latest venture, Wenwen, having a Long Island Iced Tea on the menu was the only requirement.
Robison knew he wanted to improve upon the now-classic combination of vodka, gin, rum, tequila, orange liqueur like Triple Sec or Cointreau, and cola to match the caliber of dishes coming out of the kitchen at Wenwen—and he’s one of several bartenders around the country trying to turn this long-derided drink reserved for college hooligans into a legitimate order.
“For the most part, [the Long Island Iced Tea] is for people who are here to drink and think, ‘This is the fastest way to get to where I’m going,’” he says of the cocktail’s rowdy reputation. “We wanted to change it so you can get to that level, but it’s also going to be a really tasty drink and you’re going to have a good journey on the way there.”
The restaurant’s iteration of the drink is called The Shyboy and guests can also order The Shyboy 4XL, an option that leans into the drink’s jovial reputation with a 38-ounce chalice and a flaming lime and hibiscus flowers floating on top. In the cocktail, Robison swaps mezcal for the original recipe’s tequila and adds Amaro Montenegro instead of orange liqueur. Those two changes help incorporate smokey and herbaceous flavors that result in a more complex drink, but the main reason Robison says his version is “exponentially better” than the prototype is thanks to one ingredient: lime.
“In the original, you have all of this booze, plus sweetness from the orange liqueur and Coke, but you don't have anything to balance it out,” Robison says. “So if you add a little bit of acid, it helps round it all out.”
In NYC, this once scoffed-at drink has been popping up on menus at other top-notch restaurants. At Bonnie’s, a buzzy Cantonese restaurant that’s currently one of the toughest reservations to get in town, you’ll find an oversized vintage-style teapot filled with iced honey lemon tea, cognac, and Mexican Coca-Cola along with the requisite tequila, gin, vodka, and rum. Danny Meyer’s Southern-style bar, Porchlight, uses homemade cola, citrus, and bitters to elevate its draft interpretation of the drink. And over the winter, Teddy’s Bar served a hot Long Island Iced Tea with black tea syrup in place of Coke that worked against all odds.
These all stay a little closer to the original recipe, but at other bars around the country, beverage directors are taking the basics and running with it to craft drinks loosely inspired by the LIIT. There’s craft cocktail bar The Roosevelt Room in Austin, which has an entire category dedicated to popular drinks of the late 20th century, aka what it dubs the “Dark Ages.” The bar’s version of a Long Island includes maguey sap syrup, which imparts flavors of molasses and corn.
Nostalgia is also at the heart of Boston’s popular tropical-style cocktail bar, Shore Leave, where beverage director Hannah Moore created a summer menu addition with memory-inducing frozen lemonade, a bunch of booze, and a splash of the cola that makes this drink instantly recognizable.
Her version, the Rhode Island Iced Tea, is a nod to Del’s Lemonade, a must-have drink of the summer in the nearby New England state. The idea to make a boozy frozen lemonade came first, but when pulling spirits from behind the bar that she thought would bring out the mouth-puckering citrus flavor of the lemonade, she had a motley crew of bottles that felt reminiscent of the myriad spirits used to make the Long Island version.
The drink consists of frozen lemonade, gin, pisco, Jamaican rum, and curaçao, all mixed together and poured into a pearl diver glass atop a splash of cola. “I liked the idea of flipping it on its head,” Moore says. “Every time you make a Long Island, you put a splash of Coke on top but we flip it and float the lemonade on the Coke.”
The Long Island Iced Tea, in all its creative forms, may be appearing on a lot more menus lately, but the trend of embracing this debaucherous drink is hardly new. The cocktail seemingly goes in and out of popularity every few years, and Halcyon, an all-day cafe and bar with four locations in Texas, has had a version on the menu for 20 years: the Long Island Iced Coffee.
Lacey Aleman, Halcyon’s operating partner, says the boozy coffee drink came from a desire to recreate bygone cocktails and improve upon them using the shop’s coffee program. The drink contains vodka, gin, rum, chocolate liqueur, hazelnut liqueur, cold brew, and a splash of Baileys Irish Cream—and there’s a limit of two per customer, another sign that this is a version designed for responsible folks that are way beyond their fake-ID days.
Aleman says when she started as a bartender in the late ’90s, the drink’s poor reputation also came from the fact that it was made using the cheapest well liquor a bar had on hand. “It’s always been the thing 21-year-olds are asking for,” she says.
That’s what Aleman likes so much about the iced coffee version served in her shops. You don’t have to go on a bender to revisit the easy-drinking flavors you’ve loved before. “People are excited to revisit the nostalgia of the cheap drink they remember from their 20s,” Aleman says. “This time with a much more elevated version.”