So it’s no wonder that the cocktail world is turning the clock back 40 years for inspiration, and finding that for all the cheese and trash of nightclub drinks circa 1985, there were plenty of good ideas that hold up.
One major industry survey suggests that retro-1980s cocktails like amaretto sours and Long Island iced teas will be a full-fledged trend in 2022, with old recipes seeing a rebirth in cocktail bars with fresh juices and quality spirits. And by other accounts, a number of leading bartenders have already found innovative ways to riff on tired 1980s drink tropes, such as being bright blue. Consider the “Gun Metal Blue” served at New York City’s Porchlight, in which barman Nicholas Bennett fuses blue curacao with smoky mezcal, cinnamon and peach brandy.
Wine spritzers are already having a moment, but there are plenty of other drinks from the 1980s canon that are ripe for remaking. I think of the Tequila Sunrise, the Fuzzy Navel and the Lemon Drop, each of which suffered in their heyday under the weight of sickly bottled mixes and lackluster booze. Turns out, using a little care and delicious ingredients goes a long way, especially when a drink only has two or three parts to it. Justice as well for the Midori Sour, butt of so many jokes. In reality, the cocktail comes alive when you ditch pre-made sour mix and use fresh citrus to balance out the neon-green liqueur.
There’s a reason why famed cocktail expert Jeffrey Morganthaler brags that he makes the “best amaretto sour in the world” — these are drinks worth making, and serving, proudly. (Also, it really is the best amaretto sour in the world, objectively speaking.)
I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to visit 1980s-inspired bars like the beautiful Jojo’s Beloved in Atlanta, but for now, there’s plenty you can do at home to capture the nostalgia and excess of a bygone era in a cocktail glass. My favorite might just be the Long Island iced tea, considered to be the favorite of drunks and dirtbags looking for the express lane to intoxication.
I laugh out loud thinking about this comment somebody left on a New York Times recipe, dripping with classist judgment: “Waiting tables in Charlottesville and later DC in the 1980s at fine restaurants, this was always considered a down-market drink and individuals who ordered it were suspect. Usually groups of people who would stiff you on the tip.”
I suppose there is a kind of thrill in ordering a much-maligned drink that’s made by dumping four kinds of clear booze into a glass, as if concocted by a toddler. But the Long Island isn’t my favorite 1980s cocktail because I’m a drunkard — it’s my favorite because it was the first cocktail that confused my palate by how balanced it was, despite such disparate ingredients. How on Earth could gin, vodka, rum and tequila blend into a palatable mix? How did a squeeze of lemon and a scant splash of Coke make straight booze taste so sippable?
There are competing stories of how the drink was invented in the first place, but I think in reality, somebody must’ve been dared into pouring five different clear spirits from their bar into a glass and tasting it. Even a decade after I first tried one, I’m still not sure how this alchemy works. One thing I do know is that experimenting with bolder liquors that have more character can spark some amazing flavors and aromas in a Long Island iced tea. That’s the reason why my version uses some funky aged rum (Smith & Cross from Jamaica, specifically) and reposado tequila, not blanco, to add some warmth and wood notes to the drink.
Here’s the recipe (trust me, 1982 never tasted so good):
“New” Long Island Tea
- 1/2 ounce aged rum
- 1/2 ounce reposado tequila
- 1/2 ounce vodka
- 1/2 ounce dry gin
- 1/2 ounce triple sec
- 1/4 ounce maple syrup
- 3/4 ounce lemon juice
- 1 pinch kosher salt
- Cola to finish
Combine all ingredients but the cola into a highball glass and stir to combine. Add a handful of ice, stir and top with a few ounces of cola. Garnish with a brandied cherry or a lemon wheel.
The repertoire of cocktails that blew up the 1980s is thick, and there’s a lot of fun to be had in much simpler beverages than a Long Island. Just try to bypass Malibu rum, if possible — I’m not sure there’s much redemption in that.