The Tequila Sunrise wasn’t always a punchline. Traditionally a simple mix of tequila and orange juice with a bit of grenadine added to create an ombre effect, the drink earned a reputation as a kitschy, sweet “disco drink.” But like so many other ’70s drinks exhumed from the dustbin of history, the Tequila Sunrise has reinvented itself for the modern era.
Take, for instance, the version at New York’s Ghost Donkey. Head bartender Ignacio “Nacho” Jimenez begins with a split base of tequila and mezcal, which is lengthened with bitter orange juice and topped with spicy hibiscus-habanero syrup in place of grenadine. It’s the fourth-biggest seller on the menu. “I was surprised that so many people appreciate it,” he says, simultaneously acknowledging the double whammy appeal of an agave-based cocktail paired with an Instagram worthy presentation.
The most widely-accepted Tequila Sunrise origin story points to Prohibition, when Hollywood celebrities flocked to the famed Agua Caliente racetrack and resort in Tijuana, where the signature drink was known by the same name. Drink historian David Wondrich has described the original as a Margarita-like “tequila daisy,” made with tequila and lime, plus a bit of crème de cassis for the “sunrise” effect. The Arizona Biltmore Hotel also claims ownership of a similar drink, created during the 1930s or early 1940s, when bartender Gene Sulit devised a drink for a guest seeking a poolside-appropriate refreshment. A third story places it in 1970s Sausalito, California, where Bobby Lozoff, a bartender at the Trident restaurant, is generally credited for adding orange juice and grenadine in place of lime and cassis, creating the version we know best today.
While no one has been able to confirm which origin story is accurate, there’s no doubt that the drink rose to canonical status in the 1970s, at least in part thanks to Keith Richards, who nicknamed the Rolling Stones’ 1972 tour, “The Cocaine and Tequila Sunrise Tour.” The following year, Don Henley and Glenn Frey also gave the drink an assist when the Eagles released “Tequila Sunrise” on their album Desperado.
“My mom would listen to that Eagles song,” remembers Todd Thrasher of Tiki TNT in Washington, D.C. “It’s not a terrible cocktail, but the Rose’s grenadine aspect is absolutely terrible.” His tikified take on the drink drops the red grenadine and swaps in blue Curaçao, which is backed up by lemon, passionfruit and saline.
At Houston’s Anvil, Bobby Heugel offers a version that hews more closely to the original, using a mix of crème de cassis and grenadine; he drops the orange juice altogether in favor of lemon. Like Thrasher’s version, Natasha David’s Sumerian Sunrise also skips the grenadine, instead calling on Campari, which is cleverly trapped beneath a rock of ice so that it swirls into view when the glass is tapped. She’s not alone; in her Mujer Italiana Va a Jalisco, Gina Chersevani of Buffalo & Bergen in Washington, D.C., also uses the iconic red bitter, which adds a burst of refreshing bittersweetness, “like a Sour Patch Kid,” she says.
Chersevani also notes that the Sunrise provides an opportunity to explore seasonal and exotic produce, options that weren’t available in the midcentury. “You can manipulate that into anything,” she says. “Your yuzu, ugli fruit, rambutan, different kinds of lime, oranges from Valencia—so many things to choose from.” That variability adds nuance to the drink, but also enables it to slot into a wide range of bar and restaurant concepts, she adds.
Perhaps the ultimate sign that the modern Tequila Sunrise revolution has arrived: Most consumers don’t even realize they are ordering one. In part, that’s because some bartenders are soft-pedaling the connection. For example, Jimenez named his riff the Mezcal Sun-Risa, a deliberate misdirect. It omits the tequila reference (though there’s just as much of it as mezcal in the recipe), and plays on the word sonrisa, Spanish for “smile.” Had he stuck with the original name, he protests, “people would think it was sweet, and mine is anything but sweet.”
Similarly, Thrasher’s blue drink is named Wet Money—not even a nod in the direction of its inspiration. He takes a certain subversive pleasure in that stealth revival, though. His blue version sells briskly, he notes, but “no one has asked me for a Tequila Sunrise in 10 years.”