Sweet Iced Tea, A Great Southern Pastime

Published on July 1, 2022 | Updated on July 17, 2024 | by Allen Bixby

Classic southern drinks happen to go hand-in-hand with southern cooking, but when it comes to the Southern culture, there is one drink that has been embraced from the beginning. How did sweet iced tea become such a sensation in the land of cotton? Here’s what you should know that we’ve learned about sweet iced tea drinks.

As Southern as Sweet Iced Tea

Sweet Iced Tea with The Kentucky Housewife book

We’ve all heard this phrase mentioned before in so many ways, for a very long time, but there are always going to be critics that want to cancel a culture. Oddly enough, some are going so far as to claim that sweet iced tea isn’t a Southern Thing’. Well, if you’re from the south and grow up simply knowing that sweet ice tea is very much a cultural tradition that is unlike anything else that most people elsewhere in the US have experienced.

According to Virginia Willis, who was born in Georgia, she just so happens to be a classically French-trained Chef and a very affirming author too! For Virginia, her books on southern cooking often detail the background and history of southern recipes which are a lot older than most people take for granted. According to The Kentucky Housewife, (published in 1839), it features the oldest known sweet tea recipe.

The first notion is that sweet ice tea is the same as iced tea, and this is where most people get it wrong assuming they are the same. Ice tea in the south is a tea that is presweetened with sugar and then allowed to cool down before drinking. It was also enjoyed with ice when ice was available. Since the weather in the south is not the greatest for storing ice, it was a luxury for people back in the late 1860s.

Before that, ice houses that were close to the coastline shipped in frozen ice blocks that were cut from frozen lakes far in the north. Ice tea may or may not have ice added, but those ordering iced tea in the south will often get unsweetened tea with ice in it. Most outsiders to southern culture are shocked to find that they want to have sweet ice tea but think that it’s called iced tea.

Many southerners are typically offended by the notion between these two versions of tea, but over the years have slowly adapted to the name switch. Most of the older generation will specifically call their sweetened tea by its real name: Ice Tea.

Ice tea quenched more than thirst

If you took a look at the original Tea Punch recipe, it becomes obvious that these early ice tea recipes contained an exotic ingredient. Sometimes, the tea mixes included champagne or Claret which is a red Bordeaux wine. While these are relatively low levels of alcohol, the versions that you can often find online these days contain hard alcohol such as Schnapps, bourbon, or vodka.

Since the early recipes for ice tea were enjoyed with meals, they actually didn’t start to be touted as a stand-alone drink until much later in the mid-1850s. This was about the same period before the outbreak of the Civil War. According to the history books, the Chatham Artillery Punch was a powerful mixture of wine and rum mixed with sweet ice tea to smooth out the taste.

ice tea during civil war

Other times, it included brandy, whiskey, and rum mixed with ice tea and champagne. The amount of alcohol these mixtures contained often was masked with plenty of fresh citruses, sugar, and quite literally lots of sweetened tea. There are many stories that George Washington in 1792 was slipped this drink during his time at the Savanna regiment. There was also the overly-drunken evening that Admiral George Dewey had back in the year 1900 when he also visited Georgia.

Even though most of the alcoholic versions are popular in bars and lounges across the south, these are not as popular as drinking ice tea by themselves. Most people will associate alcoholic drinks with the south mainly because of the hype that Mardi Gras has created over the years. If you visit any restaurant, diner, or gas station in rural cities, the drink of choice is always ice tea since it’s the best drink to beat the heat -without a doubt.

About the Author Allen Bixby

A retired restaurateur, not quite ready to stop playing in the kitchen.

I have had the pleasure of watching amazing high end chefs, and classic American style diner cooking, creating a very diverse background with food. Add both parents teaching English, watching Julia Childs and Graham Kerr as a child, and learning to bake bread from my Finnish great grandma, and you get a decent recipe for a knowledgeable voice to write about food.

From recipe design to equipment testing, there is a broad spectrum of entertaining aspects of food and how we do what we do every day to feed our loved ones!

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