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Long Island iced tea celebrates 40 years

A Mr. Boston Platinum Edition Long Island Iced

A Mr. Boston Platinum Edition Long Island Iced Tea as served by Four Food Studio in Melville. (July 24, 2012) Credit: Doug Young

In the year of Watergate, flared polyester pants and lava lamps, Robert Butt mixed things up a little more in the Town of Babylon. He set off a booze bomb: Long Island iced tea.

Forty years later, the high-octane cocktail hasn't aged as well as "The Godfather" but has done better than "The Poseidon Adventure" -- though, when Maureen McGovern cries, "There's got to be a morning after," it's an apropos warning.

"I had been a bartender at the Oak Beach Inn for quite a few years," said Butt, now 65, retired and living in Florida. "There was a contest, and we were asked to make a drink with triple sec. ... They'd bought hundreds of cases and wanted to get rid of them."

Thus inspired, on a summer night in 1972, Butt, nicknamed "Rosebud" by OBI owner Robert Matherson, began pouring.

"We had 18 bartenders working. After mixing and throwing out a few things, I put together what we always had: vodka, gin, rum, tequila, ready-made sour mix and the triple sec."

"I was used to making Tom Collins and vodka Collins and knew sour mix always made the drink better. A squirt of Coca-Cola and I told my partner, 'This tastes pretty good. I'm done.'" One of his colleagues said his invention suggested iced tea. A lemon wedge became the garnish.

"I won that contest and got a trip to Miami Beach." Today, Butt said, "If I drink, I drink beer."

Now, the immeasurably immoderate OBI belongs to memory and the drink is as geographically linked to this region as the Manhattan and the Alabama Slammer are to theirs.

Huntington blues-rockers Cadillac Moon crooned, "She's one shot temptation, two shots ecstasy. She's my Long, Long Island Iced Tea," in a 1997 song.

And, on "Gilmore Girls," Lorelai advises daughter Rory that one day she'll be "introduced to something that is extremely seductive and fickle. A fair-weather friend that seems benign but packs a wallop like a donkey kick and that is Long Island iced tea. The Long Island iced tea makes you do things that you normally wouldn't do."

Hence, Butt said, "I made thousands of them."

Bartenders agree that its ongoing appeal mirrors Butt's original assessment. "For a mixed drink, you get the most liquor out of it," said Jimmy Cuccias, bartender at Landshark in Freeport. "It's definitely popular." Lindsay Karp, at Four Food Studio & Cocktail Salon in Melville, called it "a hanging-out-at-the-bar drink," not exactly dinner company.

Joe Gonzalez, a bartender for 27 years, and at East Hampton's Rowdy Hall for 12, noted that it's typically chosen by a drinker intent on "getting a big buzz" rather than discussing artisanal bitters.

After all, cartoon immortal Marge Simpson downed enough of them to prompt the phrase "Marge it up." She said, "I'd like to visit that Long Island place, if only it were real."

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