Busting the Applebee’s L.I.T. Myth: We Drank 20 Just to Try to Catch a Buzz

Close up Long island iced tea cocktail
Kanawa_Studio/Getty Images

This past October, Applebee’s attracted the attention of budget-minded lushes when it announced a monthlong drink deal featuring $1 margaritas. But the boozy bargain begat a backlash after an anonymous employee’s muckraking Snapchat video revealed that the much-hyped Dollaritas were allegedly one part bottom-shelf tequila, one part margarita mix and three parts tap water, all sloshed together in unappetizing plastic buckets.

Perhaps to atone for this sin, the fast-casual dining chain now has $1 Long Island iced teas throughout the month of December. Also, the restaurant is (questionably) abbreviating Long Island iced tea as “L.I.T.,” with the clear implication being that one can get lit for just a fistful of dollars.

Unlike margaritas, Long Island iced tea should be hard to water down, as the recipe explicitly calls for a potent combination of equal parts gin, vodka, tequila, rum, triple sec, and cola. So while its name and tea-like appearance may conjure up images of little old ladies sunning themselves on a porch, the resulting concoction is actually better suited to little old ladies who like ?? to ?? party ??.

But would these be true Long Islands? And if they were, how many would our local Applebees allow us to wantonly guzzle before cutting us off?

These were the burning questions that my roommate Matt and I endeavored to answer when the CTA bus dropped us off at a packed Applebee’s in suburban Chicago last Saturday at 6:50 p.m. In the spirit of the Gawker writer who devoted 14 hours of her life to devouring TGI Friday’s endless appetizers, we were determined to get to the bottom of this thing — or, more to the point, find out whether or not this thing had a bottom.

The ’Bee was bumpin’ that evening, but we were able to worm our way through the crowded waiting area and snag two empty seats at the bar.

A part of me wanted to stride confidently to the counter, tender a crisp $20 bill, look the bartender straight in the eye and say, “You know what I’m here for.”

However, I also knew that an Applebee’s spokeswoman told The Takeout that, although there are technically no limits on the number of drinks you’re allowed to order, the restaurant does abide by “a code of responsible service of alcohol.”

We asked our bartender for two Dollar L.I.T.s. She promptly filled two 10-ounce mugs to the brim with ice and held them under the spigot of a large, clear plastic bucket that was about 40% full of yellowish-green liquid. Then, she squirted a splash of Pepsi into each mug.

The resulting drink looked like a Gatorade on the rocks that someone had accidentally spilled some cola into, but the flavor was more like a watered-down pink lemonade.

It didn’t taste like a Long Island iced tea — or like something that contained any alcohol at all, really. And thanks to the massive amount of ice the bartender used to pad out the mug, there was really only about 6 or 7 ounces of liquid.

But while the flavor, potency and sheer volume of the Dollar L.I.T. left me rather unimpressed, I did think to myself, “Well, at least it’ll be pretty easy to knock back a bunch of these things.”

This notion would prove to be profoundly naïve.

7:36 pm

It wasn’t until the fourth Dollar L.I.T. that Matt and I began to feel like we had been imbibing alcohol for the past 40 minutes. Not a true buzz, mind you, but merely the mild sensation that one achieves after finishing the first beer of happy hour after a long day.

To be fair, we’d been diluting the effects of our alcohol intake with a decent number of calories from food. And while the L.I.T.s still tasted like watery lemonade, watery lemonade is not the worst drink that you could pair with burgers, appetizers, and chips and dip. The combination was kind of nice, to be honest.

7:49 pm

Although the effects of the alcohol were still nearly imperceptible, the sheer amount of liquid and sugar we were subjecting our bodies to was beginning to take its toll.

We were beginning to wish that the bartender had just cut us off after three drinks as I’d originally suspected that she might.

8:28 pm

After we finished our hateful eighth round, there was a brief cause for celebration, as an employee came out, grabbed the drink dispenser, and carried it away. Perhaps, we hoped optimistically, the Long Island iced tea was going to be thrown out before we were!

But 10 minutes later, the fount from which all of our misery sprang was brought back to the bar, now filled halfway to the top with the addition of a new batch.

Resigned to our fate, we noticed, much to our horror, that this fresh mix of Long Island iced tea was even sweeter than the last.

Not only did this make the drink even more offensive to our taste buds, it also implied that the A.B.V. of this cursed witches’ brew had somehow dropped even lower.

9:40 pm

“Are y’all gettin’ any buzz off of those?” the bartender asked Matt and I as we finished off our 11th Dollar L.I.T. (aka, “the Spinal Tap round”).

We confessed to some tipsiness.

“I know they’re pretty weak,” she said. She then leaned in close to share with us some covert info: “It’s, um, four bottles of, like, bottom-shelf liquor, a sweet-and-sour mix, and then tap water… for the mix.”

In other words, it was basically identical to the Applebee’s Dollarita but with cheap gin, vodka, rum and tequila, instead of just cheap tequila.

Then our bartender’s voice dropped to a whisper, as she confided in us yet another trade secret. She admitted that the staff was instructed to serve just three Dollar L.I.T.s per person, “But I know they’re mostly just water, so I take care of my people if they want more.”

I felt honored to be counted among her people but also horrified by the implication that, as a result of our good standing, we would be allowed to drink a genuinely unlimited amount of truly, truly terrible $1 Long Island iced teas.

This meant that the clock on the wall was now the only external force governing how many Dollar L.I.T.s we could consume, and after nervously consulting it, we realized that the restaurant didn’t close for another three hours.

9:52 pm

After choking down our dirty dozenth Dollar L.I.T., Matt and I rejoiced again as the rapidly dwindling bucket of swill was carried away once more, then we wept anew when it reemerged moments later reloaded and ready to continue its merciless assault on our tongues and psyches.

As we entered the Long Island iced teens with unlucky drink number 13, I took some solace in the fact that this new batch seemed to be more watery than its predecessor.

In fact, Matt and I both concurred that the third bucket of L.I.T. had recaptured that same “weak pink lemonade” flavor profile the original bucket had so memorably perfected.

What was more dispiriting, however, was the epiphany that we were also both somehow feeling less drunk than we were just two teas ago.

Certainly, all this sugar was doing something to our bodies. Although I’d embarked on this quixotic journey with the fear/intention of getting blackout drunk, it was now clear to me that I was more in danger of slipping into a diabetic coma than I was of succumbing to the perils of alcohol poisoning.

10:39 pm

The Dollar L.I.T.s were proving popular with the Applebee’s crowd at large. So much so, in fact, that the staff could hardly wash and reuse the dirty 10-ounce mugs quick enough to keep pace with demand.

This shortening supply of Long Island mugs may explain why our loyal bartender showed up with our 14th drink of the night in a 14-ounce pint glass.

She probably thought that she was doing us a favor by switching over to bigger glasses. But however well-intentioned it may have been, her largesse went largely unappreciated, as Matt and I quickly realized that the long road that lay before us had just become longer.

Simultaneously, we noticed that our throats started to feel increasingly sticky, and our bloated stomachs were straining against the confines of our belts.

10:53 pm

By the time my 15th Dollar L.I.T. arrived, I decided we needed to pick up the pace of our death march toward oblivion, so I slurped the entire thing down in eight seconds.

11:29 pm

“My throat kind of feels like there’s a spider in there or something,” Matt said, upon finishing his 17th Dollar L.I.T.

I nodded.

My throat kind of felt like that too.

11:56 pm

We stared deep into the abyss as we passively drank the stuff down; but after a few dispassionate sips, we overheard something that shook us from our trance.

The bartender turned around, cupped her hands around her mouth, and shouted, “Last call!”

Matt and I looked at each other in wide-eyed panic. We could not come this close to 20 Dollar L.I.T.s and fall short. If we didn’t make it, the five hours we’d just spent drinking watered-down Long Island iced teas at an Applebee’s would suddenly mean nothing.

We quickly motioned the bartender over.

“We’d like to do one more round after this one, if that’s possible,” I meekly requested.  

She shot a quick glance at the bucket. It was low.

“I’ll take care of you,” she promised.

12:01 am

The bartender brought our 20th and final round of Dollar L.I.T.s, and Matt and I clinked glasses, toasted our crossing the finish line, and savored our drinks while we examined the bill, which turned out to be surprisingly low.

After counting up all of the individually itemized Long Island iced teas, we realized the bartender only charged us for 26 L.I.T.s, not the 40 we’d put away.

To show our appreciation for her impeccable service — and the 14 drinks she’d comped us, either out of kindness or carelessness — we left the bartender a $35 tip on the $60 bill.

I’m not sure what to make of the fact that the largest tip that I’ve ever left was at an Applebee’s in suburban Chicago, but I guess that’s the life I’ve carved out for myself, and I need to come to terms with that.

12:18 am

At a quarter past midnight, Matt and I finished the last of our last drinks and called a Lyft.

Due to the combination of our high tolerance and the drinks’ low A.B.V., neither of us walked out of Applebee’s feeling particularly, well, lit. Certainly, we were a little buzzed and giddy, but I feel confident that we could have both passed a field sobriety test.

Despite averaging four Long Island iced teas per hour for the last five hours, we had failed to achieve drunkenness.

However, we had achieved something that night. Fighting against both the clock and our own better judgment we’d pushed our bodies to the limits and collectively swallowed about 3 gallons of Dollar L.I.T.

We had Applebeen to hell and back, and emerged from the experience stronger than we were before. Well, not stronger necessarily, but… sicker, I guess.

We both felt very sick.

Patrick Grieve is a tight-fisted skinflint who can typically be found scrounging around in dive bars, empty baseball stadiums and second-run movie theaters. He’s also a writer, so The Penny Hoarder just felt like a natural fit for him.