Rescuing the Tequila Sunrise

With bitter orange and habanero, Ignacio "Nacho" Jimenez ushers the disco-era punchline out of the Dark Ages.

For Ignacio “Nacho” Jimenez, it really started with the name: “‘Tequila Sunrise’—you want to have that.”

Now head bartender at New York’s Ghost Donkey, Jimenez first discovered the disco-era drink while working at Gabriela’s, a Mexican restaurant on the Upper West Side in the early 2000s. Made with Rose’s grenadine and store-bought orange juice, the drink did not deliver on its moniker’s promise, but the ombre effect of vivid orange bleeding into vibrant red captivated him.

Though a version of the drink has existed since the days of Prohibition, by the 1970s orange juice and grenadine had replaced the lime juice and cassis of the original, becoming a kitschy touchstone of Dark-Ages drinking along the way—the only constant was the mesmerizing effect of the drink’s lava lamp–like appearance.

“The first approach was kind of an aesthetic approach,” explains Jimenez of his process of reviving the drink. “I wanted to have the same kind of impact, but obviously have it taste much, much better.”

Tequila Sunrise Cocktail Recipe

Key to this transformation was finding an alternative to using pure orange juice, a high-sugar ingredient that lacks the zing typical of its citrus family relatives. “The biggest challenge was finding a kind of citrus that would give it the right texture, because orange juice does have this kind of velvety texture that you want to keep,” explains Jimenez. The answer ultimately arrived in a citrus juice split: two parts orange, one part bitter orange, a tart fruit that tastes like a cross between grapefruit and lemon. “It added a lot more complexity,” says Jimenez. 

Rather than calling on a standard pomegranate grenadine, Jimenez crafts his own deep-hued syrup with hibiscus, habanero chile, orange peel and vanilla bean. “I added a little bit of spice to it, but I wanted it to be floral,” says Jimenez, who notes that habanero possesses a distinctive florality, which complements the hibiscus and citrus in the drink. However, it’s the single vanilla bean, an addition suggested by fellow bartender Masa Urushido, that rounds out the cocktail. “No one will think about it when they’re drinking it, but the vanilla is what ties it together,” he says. “It doesn’t let any ingredient go wild; it keeps them restrained.”

For the tequila component of the Tequila Sunrise, Jimenez opts for a split base between the namesake spirit and mezcal for added dimension. “I like the combination of both because you can tone down the smokiness of the mezcal and [still] have some of those sharp, green vegetable notes from the tequila,” he says. “You have this smoky, floral, citrusy highball.”

In his refined version, the visual impact of the two-tone cocktail remained a top priority. He wanted guests to be drawn to the drink before even tasting it. To this end, he adds a dehydrated slice of bitter orange (“I found out they dehydrate really beautifully because I left one out on my counter,” he says with a laugh) atop the deep maroon layer of the hibiscus syrup float, and serves the drink to the guest without stirring the mixture together. “You’re catching people’s eyes—that is your first job, before anything.”

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