The Rock 'N' Roll History Of The Tequila Sunrise

Bye-bye bourbon and vamoose vodka; it's tequila's time to shine. Mexico's signature agave liquor is quickly taking over American palates, surpassing U.S. whiskey sales for the first time in 2022, according to Bloomberg. Within a year from now, tequila — and its closely related cousin, mescal – are also projected to supplant vodka as America's top-selling alcohols. This could be fantastic news for a classic, though under-appreciated cocktail: the simple but showy tequila sunrise.

It's rather easy learning to make a tequila sunrise, as it only calls for three ingredients: tequila, orange juice, and grenadine. Now here comes the twist: That's not really a tequila sunrise. At least, not the original one. The first cocktail to bear this name was invented in the 1930s by Gene Sulit, a bartender at the Arizona Biltmore (via the Phoenix New Times). It contained seltzer, crème de cassis, and lime juice. In fact, the only ingredient it had in common with the modern tequila sunrise was tequila. How did this cocktail undergo such a drastic transformation that few even recall its original form? Blame rock 'n' roll.

The Rolling Stones discover the tequila sunrise on tour

Early in the summer of 1972, the Rolling Stones touched down in San Francisco to kick off a concert tour down the California coast (via the Daily Beast). The band members, the prototypical kings of cool, were unusually on edge. To say their last concert in the Bay Area had gone badly would be an understatement; Rolling Stone Magazine called it "rock and roll's all-time worst day." Four people were killed in a frenzied clash between concertgoers and members of the Hell's Angels, per SFGATE. Sensing the band's agitation, concert promoter Bill Graham decided to take them out for drinks at a quiet bar (via the Daily Beast). He knew the perfect spot: the Trident restaurant in Sausalito.

At the time, the Trident served more tequila than any other bar in America for a simple and scandalous reason. Despite its quiet setting, Sausalito was a hotbed for drug smugglers bringing marijuana in from Mexico. To satisfy the tastes of these international travelers, the Trident started making all of their cocktails with tequila. One bartender, 25-year-old Bobby Lozoff, proved to be particularly creative, using the restaurant's juicer to create tropical twists on classic drinks. Speaking to SF Weekly, Lozoff recalls the moment Mick Jagger entered the Trident and ordered a margarita. The barman convinced Jagger to try his own creation instead: a reimagined tequila sunrise with the three ingredients we recognize today.

Getting tequila satisfaction

The Rolling Stones immediately fell in love with the drink. Lozoff told SF Weekly that he demonstrated the recipe to the band, emphasizing that it was so simple they could easily assemble it in a hotel, backstage, or on an airplane. The Daily Beast reports that soon after, Mick Jagger told the band's manager to ensure there was always tequila, grenadine, and orange juice in their dressing rooms before every show. From then on, the band members were seldom seen without a tequila sunrise in hand, and the drink was frequently mentioned in press accounts of their concerts. The Stones would later recall this period in their lives as the "Cocaine and Tequila Sunrise Tour" (via The Seattle Times). Now that's a good tee shirt.

Trendsetters that they were, the Rolling Stones inspired others to try the drink. The Daily Beast notes that throughout the 1960s, liquor had steadily declined in popularity as the younger generation favored other means of intoxication. But the Stones and their tequila made drinking chic again, leading to a growth in liquor sales. Other rock stars picked up on the trend, most notably the Eagles, who scored a Top 40 hit with their song "Tequila Sunrise." The drink has somewhat faded in popularity since the '70s, surpassed by more complex cocktails, but with the surging popularity of tequila, it may be time for the tequila sunrise to seize the spotlight once again.