In 1972, while tending bar at the Oak Beach Inn on Long Island, Bob “Rosebud” Butt participated in a contest to make a mixed drink. The only rule was that it had to include triple sec, a clear orange-flavored liqueur. His end result looked a little bit liked iced tea and didn’t have a strong alcohol taste despite being having a high alcohol content. It became known as the Long Island Iced Tea.
At least, that’s one version of the story. Another version claims that the drink originated in Kingsport, Tennessee, of all places.
Kingsport claims that it was invented in the 1920s during prohibition as a drink that resembled a non-alcoholic beverage so it could be consumed openly without suspicion, and that it was named after an island in the Holston River called Long Island.
In 2010, I visited Bob and we talked about the drink he claimed to have invented.
I said to Bob:
As you know, if you do a google search for invention of the Long Island Iced Tea, your name comes up. A few people have other theories, that it came about during prohibition as a way to disguise the fact that people were drinking alcohol. Have you heard any of these other theories?
And he replied:
I've heard them. Yeah. I've been in touch with that guy from Tennessee. I don't know what his story is, to tell you the truth. I don't know. He had a similar concoction. I know they didn't have triple sec back then, you know, in Tennessee, they didn't have that. Did they call it Long Island Tea or something? Maybe they put pure grain alcohol in a glass with lemonade and called it Long Island Tea. That's the only thing I can think of because they didn't have the ingredients that are in this long island iced tea that makes it taste where everybody can drink it.
So… no smoking gun there. To the contrary, it looks like he concedes they may have come up with a similar drink. Maybe it comes down to the definition of Long Island Iced Tea.
When I visited Bob, he had just moved into a new apartment in Delray Beach, Florida. It had very little furniture. But he had all the ingredients to show me how to make a Long Island Iced Tea his way:
A shot of vodka
A shot of gin
A shot of rum
A shot of tequila
A shot of triple sec
A little bit of sour mix
A little Coke for color
Here’s a little video I made about Bob and his drink:
Bob Butt died in 2014. I learned of his death from his ex-wife, who called me out of the blue one day. I had never met her or spoken with her before. It sounded like she had fallen on hard times and was trying to figure out how to monetize the Long Island Iced Tea. She asked for advice putting ads on Bob’s old website, which was getting hundreds of views a month. I broke it to her that it wouldn’t make real money with those kinds of views. Surely, she said, there must be some way to monetize his invention that’s famous around the world. I felt bad that I had no advice to offer. Bob had told me that he never thought about making money off the drink. He just made it as part of his job.
Bars in Kingsport and Long Island, however, have managed to turn their dispute into a friendly rivalry for publicity. A couple years ago the owner of a bar on Long Island called Hudson’s On The Mile challenged the city of Kingsport to a competition to finally decide who makes the best Long Island Iced Tea. Both places claim to have won.
Whatever the origin, let’s all pour one out for Bob Butt.
That’s it for this week. If you drink, drink responsibly. And I’ll see you next time!