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Is the Tokyo Iced Tea for Real?

June 07, 2021

Story: Aaron Goldfarb

photo: Lizzie Munro

Cocktails

Is the Tokyo Iced Tea for Real?

June 07, 2021

Story: Aaron Goldfarb

photo: Lizzie Munro

The Japanese take on the Long Island original forged its own path.

Often, Wikipedia pages on cocktail history are peppered with false facts, which isn’t shocking considering the murky beginnings of so many drinks. In the case of the Long Island Iced Tea’s entry, this appears to be most certainly true. The origin story seems veracious enough—invented in Long Island in 1972, five types of booze, topped with cola—but things get hinky in the “variations” section. For example: swapping the typical triple sec with Chambord and Coke with Sprite will render a Black Superman; subbing in cranberry juice for cola creates a Long Beach Iced Tea. The final riff, which lacks a citation, involves exchanging Japanese melon liqueur Midori for the triple sec and lemon-lime soda for the cola to produce the Tokyo Iced Tea. It’s a drink that, in my more than two decades of bargoing, I’ve never heard of, seen, nor tasted. The name itself reads like an on-the-nose troll.

But the Tokyo Iced Tea does appear beyond Wikipedia on semi-anonymous blogs with names like Steve the Bartender and MixThatDrink. At the latter, a post claims that older Tokyo Iced Tea recipes call for kiwi liqueur. But the Tokyo Iced Tea, sometimes known as Tokyo Tea or the Three Mile Island Iced Tea, also appears on legitimate websites like Difford’s Guide and Liquor.com, neither of which offer an origin story for the tantalizing green cocktail. WebTender, the internet’s earliest cocktail recipe guide, added its entry in 1997, two years after the site was launched. The Tokyo Iced Tea’s earliest printed recipe appears in Paul Knorr’s 2007 10,000 Drinks: 27 YearsWorth of Cocktails! followed by Thomas Morrell’s 2009 Bartending Basics: A Complete Beginner’s Guide, the latter a self-published effort using Amazon’s CreateSpace platform. But none of these listings offers a tale of ancestry either.

So, where did this glowing green cousin of the Long Island Iced Tea originate?

While we know that its forebear was born in 1972 on Long Island, it didn’t gain traction in urban nightclubs until 1985. That year, The New York Times wrote, “A potent alcoholic drink called Long Island Iced Tea is sweeping the Island’s bars as well as watering spots across the country.” Meanwhile, Hermes Melon Liqueur was released by Suntory exclusively in Japan in 1964; it was renamed Midori by the time of its 1978 stateside launch at a Studio 54 party hosted by the cast of Saturday Night Fever. The first Midori cocktail foisted on the city was the Melancholy Baby, which was actually created by Suntory.

“Yes, she is a drink,” wrote The New York Times, “and, yes, the Japanese are following an old American custom of popularizing a spirit by inventing, then promoting a drink made with it.”

Though the Melancholy Baby would never gain a foothold, Midori did. By 1981, the Melon Ball and Midori Sour were both household-name cocktails and Midori was hot enough to merit its own neon billboard in Times Square; it would remain above 45th and Broadway for much of the decade.

Some speculation: A few months after Midori’s debut in America, some 200 miles to the west of Manhattan near Middletown, Pennsylvania, the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster occurred in March 1979. Immediately within the popular imagination, the idea of glowing green nuclear waste spewing through the region began to take hold. (A popular local bumper sticker read “Hell, no! I don’t glow!”) Today, the hexadecimal color #28df28, a flawless match for Midori, is officially known as “radioactive green,” even if, in actuality, nuclear waste is more likely to glow blue (it’s radium that glows green).

Is it possible a rascally bartender immediately related Midori’s unnatural hue to the nuclear waste all over local news channels, combined it with an emerging club drink from the era, and thought, “Aha! Three Mile Island ... Iced Tea”?  By 1985 at least, right when the Long Island Iced Tea was indeed becoming ubiquitous, a bar in Richland, Washington—the site of a nuclear waste dump—was serving the Three Mile Island Nuclear Iced Tea. Today, the Three Mile Island Iced Tea remains a historically charged alias for Tokyo Iced Tea, though it’s impossible to determine which nomenclature came first.

“I started in this game in 1989 and it’s scary to think that folk are now searching for the history of what were modern drinks back then,” says Simon Difford, who launched Diffords Guide in 2001. He believes the Tokyo Iced Tea might have been a TGI Friday’s house creation around that time, considering the volume of Long Island Iced Teas they slung. “[It’s] worth remembering how influential and regarded TGI Friday’s was in the late ’80s/early ’90s,” says Difford.

I reached out to TGI Friday’s, but the drink doesn’t appear on any current or historical menus they could dig up, and they provided no insight. Nor did Suntory, who, in this case, wants no claim to “inventing, then promoting” said drink. (Suntory shared that perhaps the drink was created by some bartenders in Los Angeles, but couldn’t confirm this or offer further information.)

Alas, even if the drink’s author can't be pinpointed, it’s possible to prove that by the early aughts, Californians truly were drinking Tokyo Iced Teas at places like Sacramento’s Old Ironsides, a longstanding neighborhood bar. Still today, people continue to guzzle them, although seemingly more so in Europe than America according to the #tokyoicedtea hashtag on Instagram. (United Kingdom–based flair bartender “Inked Oz” tells me the Tokyo Iced Tea was nightclub Sakura’s bestselling drink when he worked there in 2014.) True, it’s not consumed at the frequency of the Long Island Iced Tea, nor even the frequency of the blue Curaçao variant—the Adios, Motherfucker, which remains popular on the West Coast—but the Tokyo Iced Tea was still present enough in the mid-aughts that California restaurateur Guy Fieri whipped up a batch on a season two episode of Guys Big Bite in 2007, pairing it with spicy tangerine beef for a “Far East” dinner. “That’ll be a party favorite!” Fieri exclaims, as he pops several novelty straws into a fish-shaped punch bowl.

And that’s kind of the point. It is a party favorite for somebody out there. Even without any citations on the annals of the internet, the Tokyo Iced Tea is “real” because people drink it. And if people drink it, it’s as real as a Martini or a Margarita. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who gets credit, because, really, who wants to be Wikipedia-famous for adding Midori to a Long Island Iced Tea?

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