June 19 2013 12:00 AM

Peanut Barrel puts a limit on its signature drink for good reason

Mary Cusack/City Pulse

Michigan is home to several well-known islands: Mackinac, Beaver, Isle Royale. Pretty and peaceful, to be sure, but there’s one in mid-Michigan that’s famous in its own right — the Long Island (as in, Long Island Iced Tea) at the Peanut Barrel. And at $5 per drink, an afternoon vacation on the Peanut Barrel patio is cheaper than Shepler’s Ferry.

The Peanut Barrel has been a mainstay of the East Lansing bar scene since 1974. “Papa” Joe and Jennifer Bell bought it in 1980. They have maintained a successful business based on great burgers, a lively patio and legendary Long Island Iced Teas.

There is no closely guarded secret behind the bar’s best-selling drink. 

“The recipe is almost the same as everybody’s recipe,” Bell said. “A little less triple sec.”

I have heard staffers place the alcoholic content between four and six shots, but Bell is cautious about playing the numbers game.  

“If I tell you, some people are going to go, ‘Oh, that’s nothing at all,’” Bell said. “And other people are going to say, ‘I can’t believe they’re doing that, they’re totally irresponsible.’ You want people to have a good time, but you don’t want them to have too good of a time.” 

You know, the kind of good time that requires a mop and bucket. 

The Peanut Barrel serves a varied clientele of college students and townies. Bell has maintained its charm, and people seem to like it that way. Improvements go purposefully unnoticed. 

“When we buy furniture, we buy the same stuff,” Bell said. “When we paint, we use the same color.”

Change does happen, though, and some controversy occurred when Long Islands went from being bottle-poured to being served off the bar gun several years ago. Some purists insist that the drink changed, including Michigan State University graduate Russell Bauer, who wrote on Facebook recently that the Peanut Barrel’s Long Island “died like four or six years ago” and that after the switch the drinks were “still strong … just less charm.” Kind of like Facebook when you’re sober.

Bell counters that the change bettered the quality. 

“We made sure that the recipe stayed the same,” he said. “If anything, I think we improved it because it’s the same cocktail every time. Very consistent. Each liquor is on its own line; we mix right at the head.” 

It’s been years since I’ve had one of the bar’s Long Islands, so before I ordered one, I used caution as an excuse to carbo-load with a Peanut Barrel BLT, one of many excellent sandwiches on the never-changing menu. If anything can take the edge off, it’s bacon.

The drink tastes like a boozy Arnold Palmer (the half-lemonade, half-iced tea drink, not the golfer). Perhaps because it’s my least favorite liquor, the gin stands out on my palate. Yet in this blend, I actually enjoy its piney freshness. As the ice melts, the drink mellows considerably, which is dangerous because it goes down more easily. I know I’m not the first person to discover this, which is why the Peanut Barrel’s legendary Long Island comes with an equally legendary two-drink limit, which took effect soon after sales took off in the mid-‘90s. 

“We over-served a regular customer,” Bell said. “Somehow the day shift got her two, then the night shift got her two. She ended up in the hospital. That was a horrible day for everyone here.”  

Bell never wanted to come close to losing a like that customer again, and instituted the limit. Of course, there are always those who see rules as challenges. While the staff is trained to keep count and are pretty vigilant, occasionally a miscreant will sneak a third to earn some imagined badge of bragging rights. 

For the sake of journalistic integrity, I indulged in a second.  I savored my two drinks over three hours. With the islands in my blood stream, I had fun, but not too much fun.  Just like Papa Joe says.

The Peanut Barrel Long Island Ice Tea
1 oz. vodka
1 oz. rum
1 oz. gin
1/2 oz. triple sec
1 1/2 oz. sour mix
Splash of Coke

Pour ingredients over a generous glass of ice; shake once; garnish with a juicy lemon wedge

The Peanut Barrel
521 East Grand River, East Lansing
11 a.m. – 2 a.m. daily
(517) 351-0608