Who's To Blame (Or Thank) For Inventing The Long Island Iced Tea?

You'd think the Long Island iced tea would have a straightforward origin story. Its name, after all, begins with a geographical reference and ends with the name of a ubiquitous soft drink. But the truth about the Long Island iced tea is that it isn't necessarily what it seems. 

First, it doesn't contain any iced tea. Instead, the Long Island iced tea in its classic form is a mixture of five kinds of alcohol, namely gin, rum, tequila, vodka, and triple sec, plus a small quantity each of lemon juice and cola. Moreover, the Long Island iced tea didn't necessarily originate on Long Island — at least not the Long Island you may be thinking of, depending on which version of the classic cocktail you order.

Many will hear "Long Island" and assume it refers to the 120-mile-long island off the coast of New York. But there's at least one other place in the U.S. known as Long Island. Measuring just four miles in length, the one we're referring to is located in the Holston River in Kingsport, Tennessee. And its residents are certain that Long Island happens to be where the cocktail known by the same name originated.

New Yorkers, of course, and especially those unfamiliar with the "Long Island of the Holston," tend to disagree. So, what's the truth? Who really deserves the credit for inventing this highly efficient alcohol delivery system dressed up as a sweet and refreshing soft drink?

The case for Long Island, New York

In a 2013 video published by PBS, a man named Bob Butt claims he invented the Long Island iced tea in the 1970s. He was working as a bartender at the Oak Beach Inn — a nightclub/bar located on the East End of New York's Long Island — and someone placed a bottle of triple sec on the bar and challenged the bartenders to come up with their best cocktails using the orange-flavored liqueur. 

Butt decided to build his cocktail using only clear spirits. So, along with the triple sec, he threw in gin, rum, and tequila and topped it off with sour mix. If that's where it ended, it might have been called a "Triple Sec Sour." Butt, however, decided to add a splash of cola — for its caramel color, as he explains in the video. Dubbed a "Long Island iced tea," the cocktail won the contest and quickly became ubiquitous. 

What Butt doesn't get into is why the caramel color was important. But presumably, it was to give his cocktail the appearance of iced tea, so all that's missing from this story is why Butt wanted his drink to resemble iced tea, which is popular in New York, but not quite as popular there as iced coffee. And that may, indeed, lead us back to 1920s Kingsport, Tennessee, where a potent Prohibition-era alcoholic beverage came disguised as one of the American South's most popular soft drinks.

The case for Kingsport, Tennessee

According to the Visit Kingsport website, the city of Kingsport, Tennessee, has some nice things to offer tourists, including "city parks, swinging bridges, and miles of hiking trails and historical landmarks." But a lot of places have those things. What distinguishes Kingsport is that in the 1920s, Charlie Bishop came up with the idea of mixing five different liquors –rum, vodka, tequila, whiskey, and gin, with a splash of maple syrup.

In honor of the four-mile island in the Holston River, within Kingsport's city limits, Bishop's cocktail was dubbed "Long Island iced tea." And it caught on, which makes sense given that it cleverly allowed Prohibition-era tipplers to efficiently consume a large quantity of alcohol under the guise of a soft drink. Some 20 years later, but several decades before Butt came up with his cocktail, someone thought to add a splash of cola and lemon to Bishop's creation.

Now, no one is disputing Bishop's idea came first. But "Kingsport's Long Island iced tea," as the Visit Kingsport website very clearly calls it, is distinct from New York's in that it uses whiskey instead of triple sec. To put it another way, Butt's creation started with triple sec and skipped the whiskey altogether. Accordingly, it might actually be fair to say that Kingsport's claim to having invented the "Kingsport" Long Island iced tea isn't entirely inconsistent with New York's claim of having invented its own orange-tinged version.