In each monthly installment of Bender, Caroline Ferguson will explore the social, cultural, and historical context of a single cocktail or boozy beverage. From settling which country lays claim to Pisco, to exploring the Carthusian Monks’ Chartreuse caves, Caroline will try to track down all the places your drink has been before it gets in your glass—always ending with a recipe of her own creation. Pull up a chair and a glass.
On top of that, 2016 is shaping up to be pretty rough. In just over six weeks, the world has faced the rise of the Zika virus, an ever-more-obnoxious political landscape, and the back-to-back deaths of two beloved icons.
Seriously, how are you all doing? Are you hanging in there? Do you need a hug? Maybe some tequila? I know I do.
The tequila sunrise is a member of the family of 1970s-era, tiki-adjacent cocktails that’s been cast aside in favor of more classic drinks, like the negroni and the old fashioned. With its gradations of color (usually syrupy grenadine on the bottom, processed orange juice on top) and its fruit-and-umbrella garnish, it’s certainly not winning any awards for subtlety.
But there’s just something about the tequila sunrise that makes people feel happy—and inspired. The Eagles named a song after the drink, whereas the Rolling Stones christened their legendary 1972 tour “the cocaine and tequila sunrise tour,” contributing in great part to the cocktail’s popularity. (It’s also the name of a mediocre Mel Gibson film, so perhaps not all of the tequila sunrise’s contributions to pop culture have been laudable.)
The earliest incarnation of the tequila sunrise, curiously, has only the titular ingredient in common with the modern version. Supposedly invented in the 1930s by bartender Gene Sulit at the Arizona Biltmore hotel, the original tequila sunrise contained tequila, lime juice, crème de cassis, and club soda. The existence of this version is only substantiated by the Biltmore itself, though, so the story should be taken with several grains of salt.
In any case, the Biltmore’s version is nothing but a distant cousin to the modern tequila sunrise. That rendition of the drink first appeared in print in the 1974 edition of Mr. Boston’s Bartender Guide, though The Trident bar in Sausalito, California stridently insists that they were the originators. (An interesting article on this contentious assertion can be found on National Geographic’s Assignment blog.)
But the drink didn’t really rise to prominence until the Rolling Stones got their hands on it. They were served the drink at The Trident during their rowdy 1972 tour supporting “Exile on Main St.” and were immediately smitten with it. They took to ordering it at different stops on the road, and their infamous tour became known as the Cocaine and Tequila Sunrise Tour. The José Cuervo company, spying a marketing opportunity, started printing the tequila sunrise recipe on their tequila bottles. The rest is history... and hangovers.
Just like Keith Richards, the tequila sunrise has lived much longer than anyone could have anticipated—and with the resurging tiki cocktail trend, it’s probably going to be sticking around for a good long time.
So remember: just like the grenadine rising from the bottom of your glass, the sun will shine again soon. And if 80 percent of the original Rolling Stones can survive this long, you can at least survive February.
*Okay, I’ll admit that February has exactly three redeeming qualities: it’s Black History Month, February 15 is a great day to buy half-price candy, and it’s a socially acceptable time to rewatch the classic 1993 film Groundhog Day. But that’s all I’ll concede.
Sour Cherry Tequila Sunrise
The tequila sunrise is extremely simple compared to other tiki cocktails; you can make a decent one from the mixers available at your average convenience store. But squeezing your own oranges and making your own fresh cherry–infused grenadine will go a long way in transforming the drink from a guilty pleasure into a genuinely tasty sipper.
- 3 oz tequila
- 6 oz fresh-squeezed orange juice
- 1 oz homemade sour cherry grenadine (recipe follows)
- Orange slice and whole sour cherry, for garnish
Fill a highball glass with ice. Top with the tequila, then the orange juice. Pour the grenadine slowly right in the middle of the glass. The grenadine will sink to the bottom. Garnish with an orange slice and a whole sour cherry.
Sour Cherry Grenadine
- 8 oz frozen sour cherries
- 4 oz unsweetened pomegranate juice
- ¾ cup granulated sugar
Combine sour cherries, pomegranate juice, and ¼ cup sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally.
Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, until juice has reduced and cherries are breaking apart and rendering their liquid, about 8 minutes.
Add remaining sugar and cook, stirring, until sugar has dissolved and mixture is syrupy, about 5 more minutes.
Let the mixture cool to room temperature and strain out the cherry pulp.
Reserve pulp for topping ice cream or spreading on toast. Pour grenadine into a jar.
This grenadine will keep in the refrigerator for up to one week, and it is also delicious stirred into lemon-lime soda.