IT’S SUMMER. The wind blows through your feathered hair as you cruise down Pacific Coast Highway in your orange El Camino, big sunglasses pushed up on your head as the eight-track in the car dash plays “Gimme Shelter.” You’re not hippies — the flower-power fervor of the ’60s is over, and you aren’t yuppies, because the hectic, money-scented rush of the 1980s has not yet begun. It’s the ’70s, everything is muted and cynical and funky, and while the economy isn’t doing so well, you don’t care because you’re skinny, you don’t know that tanning is bad for you, and: You. Look. So. Cool.
After coasting around for a while, being so California it hurts, you park and head over to The Trident bar in Sausalito and refresh yourself with a drink that’s got a whiff of tiki about it, but is still more closely related to a margarita: the “Tequila Sunrise.” Comprising one part tequila to two or three parts orange juice and a hearty splash of grenadine, the drink’s name comes from its flashy appearance. To make it, you pour the tequila and then the orange juice into the glass (I like to give it a vigorous stir, but most recipes do not specify this) and then you add the grenadine carefully into the bottom of the glass. An effective way to do this is to slide it down the back of a spoon, though some people pour it down the side of the glass, causing the syrup to settle and create a fetching, Instagram-worthy ombré effect that evokes the eponymous sunrise. But because Instagram won’t be invented for another few decades, you’ll have to make do with an actual Polaroid.
Now, you might wonder: to stir or not to stir? I have no definitive answer for you. The drink looks better unstirred, obviously. But if you don’t give it at least a bit of a whirl with a straw, you’ll be drinking essentially tequila and orange juice with a shot of pure grenadine at the end. To anyone who is not a hummingbird or a child, this should be horrifying, particularly because most of what we know as grenadine is nothing but fake cherry flavor, high fructose corn syrup and a combination of dyes.
However, a fact of which I was totally unaware until embarrassingly recently is that grenadine was not originally made with cherries. It was made with pomegranate juice. Yes! The other red stainy fruit! The word “grenadine” comes from the French grenade (meaning “pomegranate,” archaically pomme-grenade). It probably derives from Middle Eastern pomegranate molasses, which actually makes a great substitute for grenadine although it is a little thicker and stronger than the pure pomegranate-based grenadines you can purchase now.
But here’s the thing — fake chemical grenadine has been a bar staple since, some say, the late 1800s. And given the general culinary bent of the 1970s (here’s a book I love, in case you want a visual reference), I suspect the original Tequila Sunrise was made with bar-quality orange juice so processed it might as well be Tang, and with good old red corn syrup, fake cherry grenadine. If you want to be “authentic” to the era, this is the drink you have to make. And if you want to serve it with some rumaki and fondue, don’t let me stop you. But if your palate has been adjusted by the passage of time, and you can no longer tolerate anything from “big corn syrup,” I might suggest some slightly tonier brands of old-fashioned, pure pomegranate grenadine like Liber & Co., which is made with pomegranate and cane sugar. Or make your own by reducing down some pure pomegranate juice with aromatics like herbs or rosewater and maybe a little citric acid for kick.
The first time someone went on record calling a drink the Tequila Sunrise was in the 1930s in Arizona. But apart from the tequila, that drink bore no resemblance to the one you’ll get if you order it at a bar today. The orange-juice-tequila-grenadine combo was invented by a couple of bartenders at the aforementioned Trident bar in Sausalito and subsequently served to a little band that threw a tour launch party there: The Rolling Stones. The drink supposedly became a band favorite; they famously called their 1972 tour the “Cocaine and Tequila Sunrise Tour.” Though it might seem a bit foofy for a rock ‘n’ roll band to be sipping on a fruity drink, I would point out (1) it’s The Rolling Stones, not Black Sabbath, and (2) they probably drank them for breakfast. Because that’s still what you call the meal you have when the sun starts to come up, but you partied so hard in your big sunglasses and tight bell-bottoms that you never went to sleep at all.