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Great History: The origin of the Long Island Iced Tea

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The year was 1972. Archie Bunker was battling with his liberal son-in-law Meathead weekly on television. It was the longest year on record — scientists actually inserted two leap seconds into 1972. The “Joy of Sex” was published and local nightclub legend Bob Matherson was cornering the compass with OBIs – West, South and East (North was to come a couple of years later).

It was also that year, at OBI East in Hampton Bays, that the Long Island Iced Tea was born. Or was it? We’ll get back to that later.

Now known popularly as Canoe Place Inn (CPI), Matherson had brought his successful nightclub east to the Hamptons and was battling an increasingly familiar war with local officials who took none-to-kindly to anything that had to do with the OBI when they decided for some reason there was just too much Triple Sec around the joint.

So to get rid of it, they held a cocktail-crafting contest. The only rule: Use Triple Sec in your concoction.

Bartender Bob “Rosebud” Butt — don’t ask, just enjoy it — pulled together the legendary drink in one afternoon and single-handedly became responsible for putting Long Island on the map. Forget the Cradle of Aviation. Forget The Great Gatsby. Forget Amy Fisher. This is the one thing we are famous for on a global scale. Even JWoww drank “Long Islands” (as they are sometimes called) on Jersey Shore.

Butt put two cups of ice cubes, gin, tequila, vodka, white rum, sour mix, a splash of cola, lemon wedges for garnish, and, of course, Triple Sec into a glass. After the smoke cleared, he made a drink that will taste like youthful summer afternoons, but punch you below the belt like Gerry Cooney (Long Island boxer of yesteryear).

In an interview on PBS, Butt said that he was one of 20 other bartenders who entered the contest.

“It was everything (clear colored) at the bartender stations,” he said of his five-shot mixture. “And a little Coke just to make the color.”

It didn’t take long for the OBI drink to catch on, and soon every other barstool was an accident waiting to happen because a Long Island Iced Tea is like drinking a regular old iced tea, until you try to pay the tab and stumble home. PSA: Have a plan B, like a designated driver or an Uber.

Did we mention it has five shots of five different liquors and Butt’s drink kicks your butt?

Thus is told the tale of the invention of the Long Island Iced Tea. Crafted at the OBI East in 1972 by Bob Butt. Case closed.

Not so fast, says the visitor’s bureau of Kingsport, TN.

“We’ve been doing this for 50 years before you all even thought about it,” claimed Amy Margaret McColl, a Marketing Manager for the city of Kingsport in an interview with ABC News.

With a shot across the bow, a video surfaced on YouTube in 2018 made by Visit Kingsport claiming that the Long Island Iced Tea was actually made during Prohibition by a man named Charlie “Old Man” Bishop from — Get this! — some other place called Long Island down south.

In the convoluted historical video, a fictionalized version of the son of Charlie, who went by the name of Ransom, says he put his own spin on his daddy’s recipe in the 1940s, and that it is the real Long Island Iced Tea!

“We know there are some folks up in the North trying to take claim, but bless their heart,” says the actor, playing Ransom.

If you don’t know, saying “Bless your heart” is throwing passive-aggressive Southern shade, like saying “You’re an idiot but you just can’t help it.”

This Charie-come-lately tale isn’t flying with true Long Islanders, who hold that the cocktail’s origins on Long Island in New York (aka the real Long Island) is the true origin story.

All the hullabaloo might be for naught because as Maggie LaCasse, director of communications for Discover Long Island, told The Long Island Press, the drinks are actually different.

“We use triple sec, and they use whisky and maple syrup,” she said.

The battle over the claim got nasty when after a competition was held in 2019 to decide once and for all which place could lay claim to the title of best drink in a Long Island Iced Tea Challenge. New York lost, but bartenders here said the contest was rigged against them.

Bragging rights aside, we all know that the Long Island Iced Tea could have only originated from one place — and that’s here on good ol’ Strong Island.

Inventor Butt is not only a legendary mixologist but a part-time philosopher and had this to say on his official website about what he unleashed on the world in 1972.

“Drinking a Long Island Iced Tea when not thirsty is one of the few things that separates us from the beast.”

Top photo: A bartender pours a Captain Morgan Long Island Iced Tea at the Captain Morgan Long Island Iced Tea house party in Philadelphia hosted by former 76er Darryl Dawkins Thursday, May 26, 2011. (Mark Stehle/AP Images for Captain Morgan)