By Jackson Cannon
Stare into the accepted recipe for a tequila sunrise and no amount of imagination will help you conceive of a craft backstory to this juice-bomb club drink of seventies fame. With its simple call of tequila, orange juice, and grenadine, the most a quality minded tender can accomplish is to choose a reputable tequila, fresh squeezed orange juice, and make their own grenadine from real pomegranate juice. Even with the finest ingredients the mix remains a vapid punch, although its appeal can be understood as refreshing in a context where imbibers are dehydrated by other primary intoxicants popular from the ‘70s disco through ‘80s club and ‘90s raves.
Concocted in 1970 at the Trident in Sausalito, Calif. by Bobby Lozoff, this sweet drink was well positioned to become a star. Catching a big break at a private party in 1972 attended by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the tequila sunrise became the drink of choice for the Rolling Stones and their entourage during what became known as the Cocaine and Tequila Sunrise Tour. In 1973, the Eagles crooned a memorable if somewhat whinny ballad with images of the drink being ‘stirred across the sky’ and the invocation to ‘take another shot of courage.’ It would be more than a decade until the titular blockbuster film starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Mel Gibson, and Kurt Russell would hit, and by then the drink was bedrock. Behemoth brand Jose Cuervo moved in hard, promoting it on the back of its bottles for years and every beginning bartender would be taught this recipe as a ‘classic.’
For a rework of this drink it’s often noted that orange juice is a fatal problem. Although some classics like the Bronx and Ward Eight do use the stuff, in its current breakfast form, orange juice lacks the intensity and flexibility that its cousin citrus does for balancing in compelling classic cocktails. This hasn’t stopped a generation of tinkerers from offering subversive riffs on their parents’ tequila sunrise.
But there is another way. The best things are the simplest things done well and it turns out the name tequila sunrise was such an evocative one for a cocktail that there is a classic by that name 50 years older than the one we know. Of course for this drink there is a little competition for an accurate origin story. One is set in Prohibition, and has Hollywood celebrities flocking to the famed Agua Caliente racetrack and resort in Tijuana, Mexico where a drink with the name tequila sunrise was served. The other claim is that bartender Gene Sulit mixed this at Arizona Biltmore Hotel during the 1930s or early 1940s as a poolside cooler. Either way, drink historian David Wondrich describes the original as a margarita-like “tequila daisy,” made with tequila and lime, plus a touch of crème de cassis for the “sunrise” effect.
Here we see the architecture of a classic cocktail. The sweet, sour, and strong are all in balance with an effervescent kick. Sipping on one of these, one marvels that there’s any connection at all between these two drinks. Like the first time you see the director’s cut of the 1954 version of a “Star is Born” and wonder why you’ve been arguing about Barbara Streisand and Lady Gaga, when who you were always looking for was Judy Garland.
Join us Thursday, Sept. 2, at 7 p.m. for Boston.com’s Cocktail Club with host Jackson Cannon and his special guest Brian Hoefling, author of “The Cocktail Seminars.” This week they are exploring craft updates of disco era cocktails, catching up about the Boston restaurant and bar scene, and sharing tips the pros use to make great drinks at home. They’ll be mixing the Morgenthaler update of the amaretto sour and exploring the origin recipe for the drink that became the tequila sunrise. Everything you need is in the shopping list here.
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