The drink became popular around 1980. It was called “Iced Tea,” and usually had to be qualified “you know, from the bar.” Eventually “Long Island Iced Tea” became the disambiguated moniker.
I remember when it hit, because a classmate of mine in college, who knew something of bartending (in those days when the drinking age was 18), introduced us to the beverage. His presentation was “How to Mix an Iced Tea.” (He also did a good bit on how to cook a White Castle.)
An Iced Tea (from the bar) was made with “the whites”– meaning the clear drinks: vodka, gin, rum, triple sec, tequila–with a splash of Coke and a piece of lemon. (Apparently the original recipe included sour mix as well.) Made well, it was remarkably lifelike. I had my first one(s) at Patrick’s Pub on Northern Boulevard in Little Neck.
Had the drink been invented in the South, in a town called Long Island, in the 1920s, it would have arrived in New York City already named “Long Island Iced Tea,” yet it wasn’t. It was just called “iced tea,” at least for a while. Some sites credit the Oak Beach Inn for inventing the drink; this has the ring of credibility for me. (Certainly Patrick’s Pub didn’t invent it, though their Irish Cocoa remains one of life’s lost glories. An Irish Cocoa and a slice of their pecan pie…forever a gustatory image of that time of my life.) One website dates the Iced Tea to 1972; it wouldn’t surprise me if it took eight years to break out.
I haven’t had one in many years. After college I began to go with friends to a commuter’s dive in Port Washington, where I drank many a Vodka Collins and played Asteroids on an Atari cocktail table. I think the jukebox only knew “Mother’s Little Helper.”
By the way, the term isn’t “ice tea,” which would denote tea made from brewed ice. It is “iced tea,” meaning brewed tea put on ice.