Long Islands are often seen as a drink for wussies: an alcoholic candy in a cup with frilly little citrus and fruit accoutrements bobbing on top. In bar-going circles, ordering a Long Island over a beer or a more “refined” mixed drink is like ordering a light Frappacino with extra whip and sprinkles instead of a coffee. The poor Long Island has suffered the sneer of booze bingers for far too long.
Think about it: as a first drink to a night out, you won’t run the risk of getting sleepy, as you very well might do with a beer, and you aren’t faced with a commitment to one liquor. After ordering that double whiskey coke you’ve been craving all day, the second that brown liquor touches your lips, you could be saying, “Damn, I should have gone for the G and T.” A Long Island can inform you of what you’re looking for in a second drink, depending on how good or bad any one of its many liquors stands out above the rest. The Long Island is a quiet hero, a spiked vigilante who fights for one’s perfect night on the town.
My devotion to the grown up iced tea prompted a tour of the Champaign-Urbana area for the best Long Island out there. I dragged various drink sipping culprits along with me to seven establishments over the course of seven days: Crane Alley, Esquire, Quality Beer, Murphy’s Pub, The Blind Pig Brewery, Radio Maria, and Mike N Molly’s.
Several factors regarding each location’s Long Island were taken into account: the size, the amount of booze, the sweet/tart level, the harmony of the liquors, the price, and the presence or absence of garnishes.
Day 1: Crane Alley
The Long Island’s traditional mix of well gin, vodka, white rum, and triple sec filled a standard sized glass (16 oz) of ice three-quarters of the way full. It was topped off with sour mix and a handsome looking lemon wedge. It was an odd pale yellow color, not the orangey, pinky color I’m used to. The taste was not at all tart, but rather a strange sweet. It was a synthetic taste, similar to Country Time lemonade or what you’d by for a quarter from kids at a stand. There was no cola and the carbonation was sorely missed. You couldn’t really taste the booze except for the gin. As an alternative to a gin and tonic, a pine lover might enjoy sipping on this gentle beverage on an easy night. But to the Long Island fan, the lack of wake-me-up and the disparity between the liquors made this drink fade into the background. It made my second order a heavy IPA to make up for the lack of fulfillment. Unanimously, all three reviewers gave it a 4/10.
Day 2: Esquire
Esquire is one of my favorite establishments in C-U. It’s a happy medium between a nicer setting and sincere one, welcoming of varying walks of life. You’ll find the college student next to the professor, or that cranky couple relieved to be off of their 9-5s with a cold Miller Lite in-hand. The service is always kind, but void ofoverly fake happiness.
On top of the normal liquor quartet, Esquire also adds an equal part of tequila to its Long Island. It was topped off with the traditional sours and Pepsi. The drink was an attractive dark orange on top, and a deep, foggy amber on bottom. A lemon wedge was again the garnish of choice. I am partial to tequila, so the brown spike was welcome. The festive sensation tequila pumped into my veins resulted in a tequila sunrise and a basket of perfectly grease-ridden dumplings as a follow up. I strongly preferred Esquire’s offering to most, giving it an 8/10. At the same time, the tequila could make it not so solid of a choice for all. The overall rating for this take on the classic Long Island was a 7/10.
Day 3: Quality
Stop three was a quick trip to Quality. Thirty minutes before a friend of mine needed to be dropped off at the train terminal, we decided to use the time as best we know how: with a drink. The liquor content was hefty: it nearly filled the glass. A drop of sours and Pepsi were added before my friend and I made our way out to the outdoor seating area. The drink was very vodka heavy, (not my liquor of choice), but somehow its stronger hints weren’t pungent. The sweet/sour ratio was a good compliment to the booze, and a lime garnish was a fitting addition for the taste. You’ll also be getting the biggest buzz off of Quality’s offering. This $7 beverage easily competes with a martini in its ability to floor you.
While I wasn’t quite impressed with the taste, the amount of booze we received for the price was a fair exchange. The drink garnered a score of 7/10.
Day 4: Murphy’s Pub
Murphy’s Pub was the oddball of the competitors. On a sleepy evening, a friend and I went to grab greasy pub food and, naturally, a Long Island. The drink was the cheapest of the lot, ringing in at a very reasonable $5.50. The thrifty bill came with no compromise in regards to alcohol content. The liquors swallowed most of the cup. Rather than a lemon or lime wedge, Murphy’s supplies you with a maraschino cherry, which always makes for the best booze-soaked snack.
The drink’s balance of booze, sweet and tart hints, and candy like quality, form a band of good traits that make for a damn fine drink. What made me realize that the Murphy’s Long Island was a quality knock back was that when asked what I felt like drinking next, all I could think of was another Long Island. Everyone, regardless of his or her booze preference, can appreciate the crowd-pleasing taste of Murphy’s candidate. With value on its side as well, the Murphy’s Long Island received a solid 8/10.
Day 5: The Blind Pig Brewery (The Piglet)
Sunday night trivia lent itself well to being a reason for two friends and myself to try another drink. This Long Island was nearly full with liquor, but that’s about where any good traits end. It was topped off with the saddest, limpest brown lime that I’ve ever seen, and the color of the drink was a rotten yellow. It was neither tart nor sweet enough, and the strong booze taste was unpleasant. The rum stuck out too boldly. Before the drink was even two-thirds gone, the excessive condensation turned the drink completely clear and watery. I was so disappointed that to give the place another chance, I ordered another to see if perhaps the first wasn’t a good representation of their offering. It was. The second drink did have a lemon wedge that looked a little less sad than the lime, but it was still unhappy. The drink was just as bad. A rhubarb wheat bear and a Two Brothers Sidekick finished the night. My mood for hard alcohol was killed.
If you like rum, water, and stale fruit, The Piglet is the place for you. My vote for this Long Island gained was a 2/10. I will don’t see myself ordering one from The Blind Pig Brewery again.
Day 6: Radio Maria
Radio Maria is probably one of the most inviting upper class dining/drink options you can come across. A step or two above Esquire and a little less bourgeois than Big Grove Tavern, you’ll find a historic, architecturally, and artistically rich ambiance that welcomes you to drink, dine, or a combination of the two. The drink list is extensive, and the food options are as well. My Long Island was a tad smaller than the standard 16 oz. glass, but not so much so that I felt as if I was being scammed. It was vodka heavy, and while not a fan, the immediate whoosh of buzz that went to the back of my throat and the front of my head proved the bartender’s understanding of making a drink strong without it being overbearing. In short, it will get you plenty tipsy and you will like it. It didn’t really show the signs of a Long Island though. It tasted more like a good vodka drink made with quality lemonade. The lemon wedge garnish was thus appropriate accordingly. The taste prompted me to shift to a mojito and a beer. While the drink was pleasing, good enough in taste to handle it’s alcohol content, it was small and no single characteristic of a Long Island stood out. It received a 6/10.
Day 7: Mike 'N Molly’s
For the last hurrah of the Long Island tour, the two most religiously committed members of my taste-testing panel accompanied me to Mike 'N Molly’s. There is something unique about the place. It sets itself apart from the general feel of Downtown Champaign. Hidden away on a more forgotten street, a late evening is more hushed, but still a desirable mood. High ceilings, an especially elegant top shelf arrangement behind the bar, and an upstairs sitting area that hosts small bands and, in the case of this particular evening, a comedy show, make the inside of the bar a nice escape. The people are kind, earthy, and receptive to conversation.
My Long Island glass was only filled halfway with liquor, the lowest of the bunch, and there was far more cola than sours, leaving me with a dark brown…thing. It was clearly was alcoholic, but in a way that made hard to tell, as it was masked so deeply with cola. It tasted fine and sipped easily, but it is definitely a drink for a quieter night. It’s the kind of drink that will be your first and last. While by no means bad and honestly the perfect amount of alcohol after a week of knocking them back, Mike 'N Molly’s Long Island could benefit from a little more beef. As far as alcohol content goes. Overall, it received a 5.5/10.
For it’s reasonable price, Murphy’s Long Island offered the best meld of sweet and tart, alcoholic harmony, and accoutrements. These elements ultimately set it apart from its competitors. However it’s impossible to safely and surely determine the best Long Island out there. There are dozens of places, hundreds of bartenders, a slew of different types of nights, and varying personal preferences that will perpetually affect how a particular drink is made or assessed. But whether that drink is good or bad, a Long Island is never enjoyed without good company and something to do. There’s an art to the grown up iced tea, so drink it proudly. The next time someone gives you flack for ordering one, shake it off and drink.
Final note: Outside of this particular tour, I have been especially impressed with the Long Island offerings at Cowboy Monkey and The Highdive. Big Grove Tavern and Firehaus have decent ones. While some disappointing variants can be found at White Horse, Legends, and The Blind Pig (not the brewery).