The drink may or may not have originated on Long Island, and it doesn’t contain any iced tea. But one thing is certain ‒ this spirit-heavy cocktail is sure to knock your socks off and leave you with a bruising headache. The Long Island Iced Tea drink is the stuff of macho men and warrior women. Anyone who can down vodka, rum, gin, tequila and triple sec, combined with a cursory drop of soda, all in one glass and walk away from the bar is made of steel! And many a man and woman have tried to prove what they’re made of by drinking this classic party drink.

Origins Clouded in Mystery

The Roaring ’20s were synonymous with the Prohibition, speakeasies and The Charleston. It was during this so-called “dry age” that booze went underground. Bathtub gin and moonshine, some containing lethal ingredients, mixed in quantities large enough to kill a few thousand people, became the backbone of the black-market liquor trade. Perhaps the knock on the door of the revenue men is what drove Old Man Bishop to pour all his liquor stock into one big drum, only to tell the G-men that it was iced tea.

It happened on a small island in the center of the Holston River near Kingsport, Tennessee. Of course, the island was named “Long Island” and Charles Bishop, otherwise known as “Old Man Bishop,” threw together vodka, rum, whiskey, gin and tequila, then added a good squeeze of maple syrup. Bishop’s trade was illegal distilling, and he needed a drink that would pack a punch in one round. He dubbed it “The Old Man Bishop.” How it became Long Island Iced Tea is a matter of conjecture.

Old Man Bishop’s Original Recipe

Like a magician mixing his secret brew on a secluded island in the middle of a river, Bishop needed to make a drink that numbed the senses in one glass that also masked the rough taste of the bootleg liquor.

Prohibition resulted in the lack of good liquor, and Bishop conjured up a drink that combined his illegal secret stash, yet still tasted good. So, tucked away on Long Island, known for its history of violence and bootlegging, Bishop worked in secret and used the sweetness of the maple syrup to cover the harsh taste of the blended spirits. He hid his booty in the waters of the Holston River away from the prying eyes of the authorities.

While Bishop sold his moonshine to steady customers, his wife had a thriving business selling her home-brewed iced tea. And it was this little old grandmother who got caught and spent at least one day in jail for her efforts.

The following recipe is what started it all.

Classic Long Island Iced Tea

Ingredients:

  • 1 ounce whiskey (Tennessee whiskey of course)
  • 1/2 ounce maple syrup
  • 1/2 ounce tequila
  • 1/2 ounce gin
  • 1/2 ounce rum
  • 1 ounce vodka

Directions:

  1. Add all the ingredients to a tall glass with ice and stir.

When he made his contribution to the recipe in the 1940s, Bishop’s son Ransom added:

  • 4 ounces cola
  • Squeeze of 1/2 lemon and 1/2 lime

Another claimant to the creation of the drink is Robert “Rosebud” Butt ‒ a bartender from Long Island. He says he created the drink in 1972 at the Oak Beach Inn on New York’s Long Island during a contest to invent a drink using triple sec. What he really did was to take the base recipe and invent an alternative drink, as did the “Betty Crocker Cookbook” when it included a recipe for Long Island Iced Tea in its 1961 cookbook and Virginia Habeeb’s 1966 cookbook. All put the lie to Rosebud Butt.

Putting LIT to the Test

To put the recipe and its history to a test, Food and Wine magazine reported that bartenders on Long Island challenged bartenders in Kingsport, Tennessee, to a duel of the drinks. The competition went down in Freeport, Long Island, in June of 2018 in front of a thirsty crowd and a panel of blindfolded judges.

While the Freeport bartenders from Long Island’s Hudson’s on the Mile quickly dumped and sloshed their way through the competition, Kingsport mixologists, watched by a crowd of Tennessee fans including the city’s mayor, approached their task with slow, cautious deliberation, typical of the Southern style. But it was the maple syrup that did them in.

Complaining that the Tennessee version was “too sweet and thick,” the judges gave the winning nod to New York’s Long Island Iced Tea. It was a matter of “light and fresh” for the Long Island summertime versus “thick and strong” from the Southerners.

It was the addition of triple sec, which was absent from Old Man Bishop’s recipe, and a splash of lemonade added by the Northerners that tipped the glass and gave the win to the North, adding a new twist to Civil War history. After all, the competition was truly civil, as witnessed when the Tennessee team removed their state flag from the Northerners’ pub, only to rehang it back home.

Return to the Battleground

Not to be outdone by the Northerners, Tennessee bartenders hosted a rematch with their New York foes. This time, judges came from their local area, and they deemed the Tennessee mixture the winner. Perhaps it’s that Tennessee folks prefer their drinks sweeter than New Yorkers, and the addition of the maple syrup tipped the win their way. It was a sweet victory for Old Man Bishop’s memory and for the South. Next time, the competition will be held in a neutral location.

Long Island Iced Tea Ingredients

Everyone from The New York Times to the BBC, highbrow to lowbrow publications, and bartenders to home mixologists have gotten into the act and created recipes for their version of Long Island Iced Tea. Is there a true recipe? Perhaps, and perhaps not. With its history so clouded in mystery, and the passage of nearly 100 years of bartenders’ mixing and mashing, tastes change, and ingredients change. Case in point: Believe it or not, even Martha Stewart does her thing by adding ‒ get this ‒ iced tea!

What stays consistent are the spirits included in the mix. Vodka, tequila, light rum and gin are a given. No need to use top shelf ingredients as they’re all mixed together and can’t be distinguished one from the other. An orange liqueur is also necessary; triple sec and Cointreau are your best bets. And just to give you a leg up in your knowledge of orange liqueurs, Cointreau IS a triple sec, but Grand Marnier isn’t.

Simple syrup in the recipe is probably a holdover from Old Man Bishop’s recipe that added maple syrup. Whichever, it adds sweetness. A dash of cola and a splash of lime juice top off the drink.

Recipe for LIT Circa 1972

It’s always good to start with the basic recipe. Once you’ve made it once, then you’re free to experiment and add your own twists. Just remember to have a tall glass ready, some ice and one of those neon-colored swizzle sticks handy.

Total Time: 10 minutes | Prep Time: 10 minutes | Serves: 1

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 ounce gin
  • 3/4 ounce vodka
  • 3/4 ounce tequila
  • 3/4 ounce light rum
  • 3/4 ounce Cointreau
  • 1 tablespoon simple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons cola
  • lime or lemon slice

Directions:

  1. Mix everything together, except for the cola, in a tall glass with ice.
  2. Stir.
  3. Add the cola.
  4. Stir.
  5. Garnish with lime or lemon slice.
  6. Sip slowly.

How Strong Is Strong?

Too much booze knocks the taste out of whack in a Long Island Iced Tea. Over-pouring may seem a generous “give” from a bartender, but one who knows his drinks knows that less is more in an LIIT.

A bit of basic alcohol knowledge here: Using the above recipe, the Alcohol by Volume (ABV) content equals roughly a 32-proof drink. Although this isn’t terrible by breathalyzer standards, an overzealous bartender who over-pours can increase that number by a third just by adding a bit more of each of the spirits and using 80 proof Cointreau.

Another way to look at the alcohol content of a Long Island Iced Tea is to equate it to the number of beers you might drink. An LIT contains five shots of different alcohols, which is the equivalent of four to five beers.

Stick to one well-made LIT and call a taxi.

Riffs on an LIT

In The New York Times, William Hamilton provides his take on the classic Long Island Iced Tea recipe. He uses half-ounce measures for the spirits and adds a quarter-ounce of dark beer, like Bass, plus sour mix sprinkled over the top. Reviews are mixed.

Cranberry juice can replace the cola, and using peach schnapps instead of tequila gives you Miami Iced Tea. Pineapple juice instead of cola takes you to Hawaiian Islands Ice Tea, while a dash of bourbon raises Stetsons in Texas Tea.

Even HGTV chimes in with its own variation on an LIT. Take the basic recipe and replace the triple sec with blue Curacao. The dazzling blue drink is electric to look at, but the cherry on top is just that ‒ a maraschino cherry instead of the traditional lemon or lime wedge.

Animal House Revisited

Most fads retreat to the history books, but the Long Island Iced Tea still lives with vigor in the minds and mouths of college students everywhere. Millennials tend to graduate from less-refined mixed drinks and plunge into quality spirits and wines as they traverse the bridge between frat boys / sorority girls to adulthood, while those waiting at the gates celebrate by indulging in the most potent drinks they can find. Long Island Iced Tea fits the bill.

About the Author

Jann Seal

My seventh grade English teacher didn't realize what she was unleashing when she called me her "writer," but the word crept into my brain. I DID become a writer. Of advertising copy, dialogue and long-term story for several network soap operas, magazine articles and high-calorie contents for the cookbook: Cooking: It AIn't Rocket Science, a bestseller on Amazon! When I'm not writing, I'm cooking!